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9 Books About the History and the Hurdles of the Olympics Games

The Olympic Games have roots in a religious festival. Since their revival, they’ve become a platform for political statements and corporate byplay. 

olympics books

 The Olympic Games originally took place at Olympia, Greece, as part of a religious festival to honor Zeus. The first record of the Olympic Games dates back to 776 B.C.E., around 3,000 years ago. These Games were staged from 776 through 393 C.E. They were brought to a halt by Emperor Theodosius I when he banned all "pagan festivals. It was a part of his attempt to make Christianity the predominant religion of the Roman Empire. 

Related: Worst Roman Emperors, from Incompetent to Insane

The first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896. This revival led to the current Olympiad that we’re familiar with now. Many of the things that we consider to be staples of the Olympic Games today were not part of the original Greek tradition. The eternal flame, for example, was not a part of the Games until the Amsterdam Summer Olympics in 1928.  If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Olympic Games, we’ve selected nine books to give you varying perspectives on the progression of the Olympics—both the tradition in Olympia, and the Games as we know them today. 

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

By Neil Faulkner

This book is for the modern Olympic viewer that is interested in a tour of the ancient Olympic Games, but sadly finds themselves lacking access to a time machine. Faulkner will take you through the ins-and-outs of the ceremonies and games that took place in Greece during August 338 B.C.E. Spectators (all men—women were not allowed to attend) watched athletes compete in footraces, horse and chariot races, and a pentathlon, among other sports. 

Related: 10 Illuminating Books About Ancient Greece

Hitler's Olympics

Hitler's Olympics

By Anton Rippon

Rippon’s book is an insightful look into the one of the first overtly political Olympic Games. By shielding their plans for radical expansion, as well as their anti-Semitism, Hitler manipulated propaganda during the Games to project the image of a peaceful and glittering Germany. This book also examines how the rise of Nazism affected German athleticism in the early 30s. Rippon’s account reveals that despite the fact that  much of the world was aware that Nazi Germany had become a police state, the Berlin Olympics were allowed to go on.

Related: Roger Moorhouse Reveals Secrets of Everyday Objects in Nazi Germany

Brazil's Dance with the Devil

Brazil's Dance with the Devil

By Dave Zirin

Just before the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazilians staged one of the country’s biggest protest marches in decades. To find out the source of the protest after the country had been so jubilant to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, sports journalist Dave Zirin traveled to Brazil. He gained first-hand insight on the toll these staging efforts were taking on the average Brazilian citizen. By bringing their protest to the streets, Brazilians brought a conversation about the costs—financial and human—of the Olympics to the world stage. 



By Jeremy Schaap

In 1936, Jesse Owens won gold medals for four events at the Berlin Olympics: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4x100-meter relay. This African-American excellence upset Hitler’s prevailing discourse of Aryan supremacy—right in the midst of the rise of Nazism. Drawing from personal accounts from the Owens family, as well as previously unpublished interviews, Schaap’s book describes the courage of Owens and his teammates during what many of the athletes that competed dubbed the “Nazi Olympics”. 

Related: 10 African American History Books Every American Should Read

The Olympics

The Olympics

By Stephen Halliday

This guide reveals some of the most fascinating facts and tales behind one of the most well-known sporting events in history. Looking back into the games’ origins in Ancient Greece and following the developments that were subsequently made in the 17th century, Halliday traces the developments that influenced the Olympics as we know them now. Have you ever wondered who was considered the first cheat in the Olympics? Do you know which Shakespearian play makes reference to the Games? Do you know when the event of “shin-kicking” was banned? Did you even know that there was once a “shin-kicking” event? 

fire on the track

Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women

By Roseanne Montillo

Betty Robinson won the gold medal for the 100-meter at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, setting a world-record setting time of 12.2 seconds at only 16 years old. It was the first Olympiad that allowed women to compete in track and field. She would go on to win another gold in 1936. But a near-fatal crash in 1931 would put Robinson out of the competitive arena for some time. In her absence, other women in Track and Field emerged at the Los Angeles Games, building on the foundation that Betty had laid for women in the sport. Fire on the Track explores her and their contributions to the Olympic Games.

power games

Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics

By Jules Boykoff

A former U.S. Olympic soccer team member, Jules Boykoff draws on the history of Games, looking at the varied political movements that have influenced the Olympics throughout the 19th century. These political impacts vary from the Workers’ Games and Women’s Games in the 20s and 30s, to the contemporary trend of corporate influences. 

Related: Punk Rock and Politics Collide in 1970s East Germany

rome 1960

Rome 1960

By David Maraniss

Summer of 1960 saw many firsts for the Olympics: the first doping scandal, the first athlete commercially sponsored for wearing a shoe brand, and the first commercially televised Summer Games. With the event taking place at the height of the Cold War, every action was weighed for its potential propaganda value. Pressure to provide equal rights to people of color and women were beginning to reemerge from the post-War and post-Communist fears. Sub-Saharan Africa had 14 nations in the process of claiming independence. Maraniss looks at the varying angles that made the Rome Summer Olympics particularly unique. 

the games

The Games

By David Goldblatt

Beginning with the reinvention of the Games in Athens in 1896 and tracking their evolution to Rio’s 2016 Games, Goldblatt explains how the Olympics became the global spectacle that we know them to be now. This book also profiles well-known personalities around the Games, such as Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, and Nadia Comaneci, among others.