Summer Olympics Primer: 10 Books for the Rio de Janeiro Games

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The 2016 Summer Olympics are finally here and they’re taking place in one of the most fascinating cities in the world – Rio de Janeiro. The Olympics represent a unique cultural touchstone the world over. It is one of the few events that literally draws the eyes of the world and at its best celebrates the diversity, culture, and spirit of competition. Whether it’s the oft-awe-inspiring spectacle of the opening ceremonies or the iconic moments sure to come from the games themselves, the Summer Olympics are not to be missed. Here we present your must-read list to get you ready for this year’s games.


Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa
To get an idea of the more recent issues and dichotomies facing this year’s Olympics host city, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, from Brazil native and journalist Juliana Barbassa, is a beautifully written account of a city known not only for its gorgeous beaches, spontaneity, and jubilant atmosphere but also for corruption, poverty-ridden favelas, and the violence of the drug trade.

oly-rioRio de Janeiro: A City on Fire by Ruy Castro
As a part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s The Writer and The City series, Rio de Janeiro: City on Fire is less a travelogue and more an encapsulation of the tumultuous history and spirit of the mercurial Brazilian city. Brazilian journalist and essayist Ruy Castro weaves anecdotes and humor alongside a concise history of Rio.


oly-triumph3Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
The story of Jesse Owens perfectly highlights the overarching impact and political implications of the Olympic Games. The four gold medals Owens won in track and field events were a direct counterpoint to Adolf Hitler’s hope that his German athletes would dominate the games, thus illustrating his claim of the superiority of the “Aryan” race. Owens’s performance was an exhibit of pure skill and determination.

oly-off-balanceOff Balance by Dominique Moceanu with Paul and Teri Williams
At just fourteen years old, Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the celebrated “Magnificent Seven” women’s gymnastics team at the 1996 Atlanta games. In her searing memoir, Moceanu takes readers behind some of the most iconic moments of the ’96 games – including Kerri Strug’s inspiring Gold Medal finish. She also lays open the darker side of one of the Olympics’ most popular sports – from vaunted, if controversial, coach Bela Karolyi to hidden injuries and intense competition.

oly-boysThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
The 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, was about more than sports. America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Hitler was at the forefront of World War II. And a team of nine men from working-class families in the western United States set their sights on a dream – to win Olympic gold for crew. And win they did. Daniel James Brown’s beautifully writ telling of this story has been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks.


oly-nakedThe Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games by Tony Perrottet
So with all of the hoopla generated around the Olympic Games, one must wonder: Where did it all begin? For an in-depth look at the ancient history of this international event, Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics delivers. From chariot races and javelin throws to the mayhem inside the Olympic village, this is the book to understand the traditions and the pomp.

oly-power-gamesPower Games: The Political History of the Olympics by Jules Boykoff
For a more politically charged look at the history of the modern Olympic Games, Power Games is a perfect starting point. Jules Boykoff, a former Olympian himself, outlines the complex and sometimes scandalous history of the Games. Whether it’s the Olympic committee’s occasional fascination with Fascism or the political movements that occasionally found catalysts within the Games, Power Games is a must read.

oly-who-shot-sportsWho Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present by Gail Buckland
A more visual look at the Olympics and beyond, Gail Buckland’s Who Shot Sports is a curation of the work of 165 sports photographers whose work here covers everything from the 1936 Summer Olympics to more modern games and beyond, tapping into the archives of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne.

oly-ht-watchHow to Watch the Olympics: The Essential Guide to the Rules, Statistics, Heroes, and Zeroes of Every Sport by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton

Do you love the games – but perhaps feel a little less than brilliant when it comes to things like rules and points? In How to Watch the Olympics, David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton break down the summer sporting events in easy-to-parse language coupled with helpful illustrations. With their help, you’ll be a veritable fountain of proper protocol, predictions, and opinions.


oly-dont-tell-meDon’t Tell Me You’re Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella
In Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, novelist Giuseppe Catozzella introduces us to eight-year-old Samia and her best friend Ali, who are determined to work together to gain Samia entrée into the 2008 Beijing Games. What follows is a heartbreaking and heartwarming story of one young girl’s realized dreams and hopes.