18 Books for Your Summer Olympics Deep Dive
From cycling to table tennis, find a book on your favorite event
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The 2016 Summer Olympics start in Rio this Friday, August 6th. Its scope is massive: 10,500 athletes from 206 countries will participate in 28 events from track to boxing to rowing. Despite real issues surrounding doping, security, Zika, and toxic ocean water, despite naysaying from friends who’d rather be watching The Night Of, despite the hokey broadcast TV coverage, the Olympics are exciting. These athletes have trained for years — years! They’ve given up friends and hobbies and junk food. They are, quite literally, battling the best in the world to win. That makes for a pretty compelling spectacle.
So in the spirit of the Games, here are 18 books about the Summer Olympic sports. Admittedly, there isn’t a book for every sport (sorry, rhythmic gymnastics) and the sports are more central in some books than others, but it’s a long four years between Olympics for fans of archery, and these should help pass the time.
1. Cycling: The Rider
by Tim Krabbé
What goes through the mind of a man biking the 137-kilometer Tour de Mont Aigoual? The Rider lets you know, following one man’s consciousness as he cycles the French route on a hot day in 1977. The novel started as a cult classic in Holland but its English translation has made it a must-read for cyclists over the world.
2. Boxing: How To Shake The Other Man
by Derek Palacio
In this slim, forceful debut novel, Javier, a young Dominican prostitute, is taken in by Marcel, a boisterous Cuban man who’s in charge of a legion of New York City’s street coffee vendors. To entice Javier to stay with him, Marcel enlists his brother Oscar to train Javier in the art of boxing. Before Javier can get in the ring for his first fight, Marcel is found murdered, throwing Oscar and Javier together in unexpected ways.
3. Equestrian: The Mare
by Mary Gaitskill
Horseback riding is not exactly an egalitarian sport, which is what makes the setup of Mary Gaitskill’s novel so intriguing. Velveteen Vargas is a Fresh Air Fund kid sent from Brooklyn to live with an artsy-academic couple in Upstate New York. Velveteen is introduced to the local stables, where she develops a transformative relationship with Fugly Girl, one of the mares.
4. Swimming: Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton
You train five hours a day, six days a week for most of your life. Then, one day, it’s over. Leanne Shapton had this experience. She trained for the Olympic trials in swimming but quit while in high school. Swimming Studies is an investigation into the “insular, clammy, circumscribed and largely underexposed” sport of competitive swimming.
5. Archery: The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
If the Olympics seem stressful, think about the pressure to win the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen’s weapon of choice in this cinematic death match is an old school bow-and-arrow. A useful choice as it also catches her dinner.
6. Athletics: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe
In the titular story of this collection, Smith, a poor teenager from Nottingham, is convicted of petty crimes and sent to a grim reform school for boys. Smith turns to long distance running as a mental escape, and when he attracts the notice of the cross country team, running becomes a possibility for literal escape as well.
7. Fencing: Zorro
by Isabelle Allende
How did Diego de la Vega become the masked crusader El Zorro? Allende imagines the origin story of the iconic, swashbuckling hero. And if there is one thing that Zorro does well, it’s fence.
8. Soccer: God is Round
by Juan Villoro
There is a healthy range of non-fiction soccer books, from fan memoirs like Nick Hornby’s excellent Fever Pitch to data-driven insights a la Soccernomics. Add to that shelf this collection of essays by Mexican author Juan Villoro: part tribute, part critique, these are thoughtful meditations on the world’s most popular sport.
9. Gymnastics: You Will Know Me
by Megan Abbot
This murder mystery is set in the world of teenage competitive gymnastics and their crazy parents, offering the dark side of American ambition.
10. Judo: A Clean Kill in Tokyo
by Barry Eisler
The protagonist of this mystery series is John Rain — né Junichi Fujiwara — a half-Japanese, half-American ex-CIA agent turned freelance assassin who offers a special service: assassinations that appear to be death by natural causes. Rain is big into the marital arts, especially judo, for which he trained at the Kodokan Institute, the headquarters of the global judo community.
11. Rowing: Flat Water Tuesday
by Ron Irwin
The rowing team at the elite Fenton School is no joke: a spot on the winning team guarantees the oarsmen admission to Harvard. Rob Carrey and the rest of rowing team must grapple with these intense pressures and expectations, and as one might imagine, it leads to nowhere good.
12. Rugby: This Sporting Life
by David Storey
Set in the fictional northern English town of Primstone, this novel follows Arthur Machin’s attempts to make it as a Rugby League player. As for many of the kids on this list, rugby isn’t just a sport for Machin, it’s a way out of his grey, dead-end existence.
13. Sailing: Master & Commander
by Patrick O’Brian
If you’ve ever seen an entire shelf of books by Patrick O’Brian at the bookstore and wondered where it all started, here is your answer. This is the first of the 20-book series about Jack Aubrey, a commander of the Royal Navy and his naval surgeon Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. If you think sailing a Sunfish is hard, try a 19th century frigate.
14. Tennis: Sudden Death
by Alvaro Enrigue
Italian artist Caravaggio plays Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo in a tennis match using a ball made from the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn. This isn’t a dream you had after eating too late at night, it’s Enrigue’s totally original, unusual, thought-provoking novel.
15. Wrestling: The World According to Garp
by John Irving
T.S. Garp is interested in wrestling, sex, and writing (not necessarily in that order.) This novel follows Garp as he comes of age, tries to become a writer, marries the wrestling coach’s daughter, and struggles with his mother’s mounting fame as a super-feminist.
16. Golf: The Amateurs
by John Niven
It’s a twisted sort of fable: in golf-obsessed Northern Scotland, Gary Irvine, a formally unremarkable 30-something computer hacker, is hit on the head with a golf ball and wakes up with the golf-swing of a pro. A dream come true, except he has also developed Tourette’s syndrome, his wife is cheating on him, and there’s no getting around the fact that golf can drive even the most accomplished player insane.
17. Basketball: Under the Frog
by Tibor Fischer
This novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, follows the adventures of two Hungarian basketball player, Pataki and Gyuri, as they travel the Communist-opressed country in the 1950s.
18. Table Tennis: The Mighty Walzer
by Howard Jacobson
Coming-of-age stories are awkward enough, then Howard Jacobson went and added table tennis. Oliver Walzer is growing up in Manchester in the 1950s, yearning for success in his table tennis club and the reciprocated romantic interest of his fellow ping pong player, Lorna Peachly.