The 2016 Olympic Games are now in full swing in Rio de Janeiro. For sixteen days the world will see just what some of the fastest, strongest, and all around most amazing athletes of the world can do. In addition to the dazzling display of athletic mastery and impossibly fit people, the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity to watch sports, society, politics, and economics collide in real-time.
The focus may be on athletic achievement but it is nearly impossible not to think about the political, social, and economic backdrop against which the Games take place. The parade of nations during the opening ceremony brought this to the forefront, with the Refugee Olympic Team marching behind the Olympic flag instead of a country flag and the greatly reduced number of Russian athletes. Further, given all the press coverage that preceded the event about the difficulty Brazil was having in preparing for the Games, one can’t help but wonder how the lives of the people in the host city are both enhanced and disrupted by the presence of the Games in Rio.
Of course, the Olympic Games also present the chance to not only celebrate achievement and success but also to reflect what those terms means to us as individuals, as citizens of a particular country, and as citizens of the world. Let us not forget that even those athletes who leave Brazil without a medal around their necks are still some of the most talented athletes in the world.
With all this in mind, this week’s post focuses on books that tell the story of the Olympics, its athletes, its casualties, and its victors.
Books about the History of the Games
Start here for a history of the ancient Olympic Games.
Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics by Jules Boykoff
Look to Jules Boykoff for a history of the modern Olympics from the nineteenth century to the modern era.
The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt not only tackles the history of the games from its reinvention in 1896 to the current games in Rio, he explores how the Olympics have highlighted domestic and international conflicts and movements. He tells how women fought to be included in the Olympics, discusses how the Olympics reflect changing attitudes about race and ethnicity, explores the tension between professional athletics and the Games’ amateur ideals, and reveals the often disappointing economic realities host cities are left with after the Games leave town.
Hill explores the politics behind the Olympics from the ancient games to the Atlanta games. He covers how the games are financed, the bidding process for prospective host cities, and more.
This book is for anyone looking for a comprehensive picture of how the Olympic system works: how it is organized, governed, financed, and more.
Books about Brazil & the Olympics
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink by Juliana Barbassa
Brazilian-born journalist Juliana Barbassa returned to Rio after a 21-year absence. In Dancing with the Devil in the City of God she chronicles the transformation of the city as it readied itself for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, revealing the triumphs and the struggles, the good and the bad.
Brazil’s Dance with the Devil The World cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy by David Zirin
With the focus on Brazil, David Zirin connects sports, politics and social justice, discussing how mega-events exacerbate social issues and often leave behind poor people who have been dislocated to make room for giant stadiums and a more militarized police state.
A Concise History of Brazil by Boris Fausto and Arthur Brakel
This one has nothing to do with the Olympics but focuses solely on this year’s host country. Here you’ll find nearly 500 years of Brazilian history in about as many pages.
Books by or about Athletes
This 2012 autobiography focuses on gymnast Gabrielle Douglas and her journey to the 2012 London Olympics where she won a gold medal in the individual women’s all-around event (becoming the first African-American to do so), in addition to helping her team take home the gold in the team event.
No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps with Alan Abrahamson
In No Limits Michael Phelps describes the hard work, commitment, and sacrifice it took to become an Olympic champion several times over. With an emphasis on training and preparation, No Limits might appeal particularly to those aspiring to Olympic greatness themselves.
Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith by Tommie Smith with David Steele
Many have seen the famous photo of Tommie Smith raising a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after coming in first in the 200-meter dash. Here Smith tells what happened after he struck that iconic pose.
Mocha Girl Tiffani
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