12 Nonfiction Books To Celebrate The Olympics

With the 2016 Summer Olympics just around the corner — the Olympic opening ceremony will be held this Friday, August 5 — sports fans from all over the world will be turning their attentions towards Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; a hilly city located on the southern Atlantic coast, that has had more than its fair share of drama as it prepares to play host to the Olympic games. Before the games begin, check out some of these great nonfiction books about the Olympics.

Between concerns about safety and security at Olympic Village, to fears about the spread of Zika virus, to the Brazilian citizens themselves using the global stage of the games and an opportunity to raise awareness about their own political issues, (can you really blame ‘em?) this summer’s Olympic season hasn’t been all fun and… well, games.

There are a lot of reasons we love the Olympics, after all — international politics aside. The Olympic narrative has always been one of passion and transformation; of people pushing their hearts, minds, and bodies to the limit in pursuit of superhuman feats of athletic greatness; of overcoming major obstacles, injuries, and prejudices (we love you, Serena!) and of course, the ultimate glory of standing atop that Olympic podium wearing gold. It’s why we keep watching them, season after season; and it’s why we love immersing ourselves in true stories from the Olympic games, even long after the athletes have packed up and headed home for another long training season.

Here are 12 nonfiction books to read during the Olympics.

1. The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt

You’ve got a few days left before the games officially start — so why not take that time to start at the beginning? Or, at least, the beginning of the Olympic games as we know them today. Published earlier this month by sports writer David Goldblatt, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics takes readers all the way back to Athens, Greece, circa 1896, to the site of the first international Olympic games held in modern times. From there, Goldblatt winds his way to 2016 Rio de Janeiro, taking readers through decades of iconic athleticism, complicated global politics, and increasing commercialism — all of which go into making the Olympic games what they are today.

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2. Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy by Dave Zirin

The modern Olympic games have always been political — I mean sure, they’ve always been an opportunity for the greatest athletes from around the world to come together in shared athleticism, fellowship, and healthy competition — but at its core, there’s always been a bit more at stake than just the medal, when an athlete goes for the gold. As the world turns towards Brazil this summer, we’re seeing the political ramifications of the Olympic games up close. With exceptional reporting by Dave Zirin, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy dives deep into the clash of sports and politics in Brazil, and how the people of Brazil are responding. If you want to understand this year’s Olympic games more deeply, this is definitely the book for you.

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3. The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway

In the years during and after the Great Depression, the island of Maui wasn’t just the tranquil turquoise and white sand landscape that you think of today. Home to sugar plantations, and the impoverished families who farmed them, the island of largely Japanese-Americans needed something to cheer for. One schoolteacher, Soichi Sakamoto, decided to take matters into his own hands, forming a swimming club with the impossibly ambitious goal of making it to the Olympics — without even a pool to train in. From their improvised training ground in Maui’s irrigation ditches to the 1948 Olympics in London, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory shows that sometimes all you need to start something epic is a dream.

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4. The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey by Muhammad Ali

This past June saw the passing of Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s most well-known boxers and, though a lesser-known fact, one of its most gentle spirits. Any reader who has admired the unparalleled athleticism of Muhammad Ali will love this glimpse into the man behind the boxing gloves — a spiritual figure, and a United Nations "Messenger of Peace”, Ali spent more of his life fighting violence than he did winning fights. This autobiography, written in part by Ali’s daughter, is a great reminder that no matter how superhuman an athlete might seem, they’re all just people deep down.

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5. Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics by Doris Hinson Pieroth

At the time of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, and it was definitely not the norm for women to be athletes — let alone Olympians. Nonetheless, that year 37 American women competed in the Olympic games in swimming, track and field, and fencing. Daring to be women ahead of their time despite the social stigmas they faced, these women inspired generations of girls to dreamed of outside-the-box lives for themselves. Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics profiles each of these women, sharing their fears and struggles — both physical and cultural — as they took a first step in ensuring that female athletes will always be a part of the Olympic tradition.

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6. In the Water They Can't See You Cry: A Memoir by Amanda Beard

At just 14-years-old Amanda Beard was an award winning Olympic medalist, taking home two silver medals and one gold at her first Olympic games. Over the course of her swimming career she would take home four more medals won in three more Olympics, in addition to becoming a globally recognized model. But despite all the success, Beard struggled with undiagnosed clinical depression, and began harming the body that had inspired so much of her success in the first place. Only by learning to deal with her illness and redefine her self-worth was Beard able to rise above her depression and self-destructive behaviors, transforming her life into something inspiring beyond the Olympics.

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7. Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith by Tommie Smith

Even if you’re not the most avid sports fan, you’ll probably recognize the photograph — at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, gold medal winning runner Tommie Smith, and bronze medal winning runner John Carlos stood on the Olympic platform, and lifted their black-gloved fists into the air. A Black Power salute to the United States and the world, viewers either misunderstood, or thought they understood, or totally empathized with Smith’s “silent gesture.” In Silent Gesture Smith explains what his raised fist meant to him in 1968, how it informed his life after the Olympic games, and what the symbol means to him now.

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8. The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team by Wayne Coffey

It’s been called the greatest sports moment of the twentieth century — and chances are if you know a hockey fan, you’ve been invited to see the movie about a thousand times (or is that just me?) The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team tells the story of that “miracle on ice” that took place at the 1980 Olympics — a hockey match between the United States and Russia, which, at the height of the Cold War, were competing over a whole lot more than the number of goals scored. See, I told you the Olympics can get super political.

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9. Olympic Portraits by Annie Leibovitz

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words — so that’s reason enough to check out world renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz’s Olympic Portraits, a collection of iconic portraits and images that celebrate everything the Olympics has to offer — physical strength and beauty, poise, struggle, competition. Take in the Olympic games from an entirely unexpected angle with this book, because you will not get this POV from watching them on television.

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10. Golden Girl: How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenged Conventional Wisdom, and Became America's Olympic Champion by Michael Silver

At only 15-years-old Natalie Coughlin became the first swimmer to ever qualify for all 14 women's events at the U.S. Nationals — but a shoulder injury ended her dreams of bringing home the gold in the 2000 Summer Olympic games. Despite a nearly impossible training schedule, physical and emotional burnout, and injury, Coughlin went on to compete in the 2004 Olympics, and took home more medals than any other female athlete there. Golden Girl: How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenged Conventional Wisdom, and Became America's Olympic Champion is her amazingly inspiring story.

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11. Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith by Gabrielle Douglas

When Gabrielle Douglas was born, her family never expected she’d become an Olympic gymnast. Very sick at birth, Douglas spent the early days of her life living out of the back of a Dodge van with her mother, brother, and two sisters. But once she discovered gymnastics, there was no turning back. Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith is Douglas’s journey to the 2012 Summer Olympics, where she showed the world that dreaming big and believing in yourself aren’t just platitudes — with enough passion and dedication, those dreams can become reality.

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12. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic journey towards Olympic gold — a journey that turned America's eyes to the sport of rowing for the first time in history. Coming from working class families where parents were spread thin and success was hard-won, the team of eight banded together with their unpredictable coach and outside-the-box thinking mentor, and went on to defeat not only their rivals from prestigious British universities, but even the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. Inspired by the rowing team’s own journals and photographs, Brown's book will take you back to the drama of the 1936 Olympics, reliving all the struggle, determination, big dreams, and success.

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