The best Olympics books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the Olympics and why they recommend each book.

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Triumph

By Jeremy Schaap,

Book cover of Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

In one of the indelible images from the 20th Olympic Games is the grainy footage of American sprinter Jesse Owens racing down a dirt-running track to victory during the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler sought to exploit as a propaganda opportunity. Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals during those Games, a stark defiance to the Nazi’s racist ideology. Triumph tells the story of those Olympics, along with Owens humble origins as a talented black athlete in Jim Crow America, his unlikely friendship with a German long jumper, and his inglorious return to the U.S. that prohibited him from profiting from his success on the track because of draconian amateur rules of the time. 


Who am I?

I get it, to most people running isn’t fun, but its simplicity can be deceptive. To some, running (especially when done in nature) can be a spiritual act. To others, it (along with its cousin jogging) should’ve been included in the Geneva Conventions. Me? I’ve been running since the third grade and watching running for even longer. Growing up, the Olympics were required viewing and an interest in running naturally flowed from it. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy the great many books out there about runners and their impact on sports, culture, and world events. 


I wrote...

Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers

By Nicholas Smith,

Book cover of Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers

What is my book about?

When the athletic shoe graduated from the beaches and croquet courts of the wealthy elite to streetwear ubiquity, its journey through the heart of American life was just getting started. In this rollicking narrative, Nicholas K. Smith carries us through the long twentieth century as sneakers became the totem of subcultures from California skateboarders to New York rappers, the cause of gang violence and riots, the heart of a global economic controversy, the lynchpin in a quest to turn big sports into big business, and the muse of high fashion.

Studded with larger-than-life mavericks and unexpected visionaries—from genius rubber inventor, Charles Goodyear, to road-warrior huckster Chuck Taylor, to the feuding brothers who founded Adidas and Puma, to the track coach who changed the sport by pouring rubber in his wife’s waffle iron—Kicks introduces us to the sneaker’s surprisingly influential, enduring, and evolving legacy.

The Boys in the Boat

By Daniel James Brown,

Book cover of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

It’s been years since I read this book, but I remember vividly the thrill of this unlikely crew of kids from working-class families in Washington state shocking Hitler by beating his rowing team on his home turf at the Olympics, an extravaganza designed to display German superiority. Add to that, the nine-man crew’s earlier upset victories against the American Ivy League teams that dominated one of the most popular American sports in the days before television, and you’ve got the makings of a wonderful underdog-come-from-behind story. Which it is, in the hands of this author, and is why I’m recommending two books by him. Brown builds drama by explaining who these kids were, the daunting personal challenges some of them faced, and how, in the hands of the right coaches and a talented boat-builder, these “nobodies” became world champions.


Who am I?

I’ve spent my life fascinated by stories about people. My mother, maybe seeing something in me early on, took me to get my own library card when I was three. The librarian protested but finally agreed. And so I became not only a reader but a writer of books, a book reviewer, and a book editor. Then one day this story about William Walters fell into my lap. For four years he told me about his extraordinary life spanning nine decades, and we turned it into a memoir. Now, more than ever, I treasure well-told stories about little-known folks who’ve accomplished great things, and I love the idea of sharing them with you.


I wrote...

A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Homeless at age four, William Walters embarked on an extraordinary journey through nine decades of U.S. history when he boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains. From 1854 to the early 1930s, these trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West, sometimes providing loving new families, other times delivering kids into nightmares. Taken by a cruel New Mexico couple, William faced a terrible trial, but his strength and resilience carried him forward into remarkable adventures.

Whether escaping his abusers, jumping freights as a preteen during the Great Depression, or infiltrating Japanese-held islands as a teenage Marine during WWII, William’s astonishing quest paralleled the tumult of the twentieth century—and personified the American dream.

Tigerbelle

By Wyomia Tyus, Elizabeth Terzakis,

Book cover of Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story

In this memoir, Wyomia Tyus tells of her journey from Georgia as a sharecropper’s daughter to how she landed a coveted spot on the Tennessee State women’s track and field team, the Tigerbelles, and her domination in Olympic sprinting during the 1960s, a reign that included three gold medals and one silver. The story of Tyus and the Tigerbelles has been likened to a sports version of Hidden Figures and the comparison is apt. Though Tyus and her teammates never graced the cover of a Wheaties box or Sports Illustrated, these African-American women became an unparalleled force in track and field, breaking barriers and setting records, and challenging the racism and sexism of their era.


Who am I?

My novels explore women whose contributions to culture have been relegated to the footnotes of mainstream history books, and in few areas have women been more overlooked than in sports. Because of the achievements of today’s female athletes, ranging from the many athletic opportunities available to our young daughters to the professional success of women like Serena Williams, it’s easy to think that progress for women’s sports has come a long way—and in many ways, it has, thanks to legislative protections like Title IX—but these achievements reflect over a century’s worth of sacrifice by many unheralded women athletes. Here are five books that highlight this journey.


I wrote...

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

By Elise Hooper,

Book cover of Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

What is my book about?

Fast Girls is historical fiction inspired by the real-life women track stars of the late 1920s and ‘30s. Three young women—Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens—will join with others to defy society’s expectations of what women can achieve. As tensions bring the United States and Europe closer and closer to the brink of war, these women must fight for the chance to compete as the fastest women in the world amidst the pomp and pageantry of the Nazi-sponsored 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 

Yusra Swims

By Julie Abery, Sally Deng (illustrator),

Book cover of Yusra Swims

I was bowled over by Yusra Mardini’s powerful story when I heard it during the 2016 Olympics, when she was a swimmer on the global Refugee team. As Yusra and her sister were fleeing war-torn Syria and their boat began to sink, the 17-year-old did what she knew how to do best—swim—to help save the lives of everyone aboard. In sparse but powerful words and art, this book shows American children so much about the refugee experience, through a teenager whose life probably looked very much like their own before war struck her country, and who stepped up and saved others with her skill while at risk herself.


Who am I?

I’m someone who feels everything deeply and longs for a kinder, healthier world for everyone. A humane educator and diverse books advocate, I’m drawn to true stories that inspire compassion, inclusivity, and taking action in our own unique ways to make a difference. My nonfiction picture books—including Winged Wonders, Cougar Crossing, Ocean Soup, Make Way for Animals!, So Much More To Helen, and more— focus on “solutionaries” who help people, animals, and the planet. They’ve won Golden Kite and Eureka! Nonfiction Honor Awards, starred reviews, and spots on best books lists.


I wrote...

Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank's Diary

By Meeg Pincus, Jordi Solano (illustrator),

Book cover of Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank's Diary

What is my book about?

The story of Anne Frank and her diary is one of the world's most important and well-known, but less is known about the woman who sheltered Anne and her family for years and, ultimately, rescued Anne's diary from Nazi clutches. Miep Gies was an ordinary woman who rose to bravery when humanity needed it and risked everything for her neighbors. It is because of Miep we know Anne Frank—and now, this is Miep's story.

Break the Fall

By Jennifer Iacopelli,

Book cover of Break the Fall

I inhaled Break the Fall, set in the world of elite gymnastics. After an injury, Audrey is not only ready to return to gymnastics but does the impossible thing of qualifying for the Olympics. Finally, she’s on the cusp of achieving all that she’s dreamed of and trained for all these years. Everything unravels, however, when their coach is accused of sexual assault. Iacopelli does a gorgeous job capturing all of the highs and lows of this story, as well as the intensity of elite athletics. While we don’t typically think of gymnastics as a team sport, I was especially appreciative of the way Iacopelli showed the girls standing up for each other as a team, which is rare in YA girls’ sports books. 


Who am I?

I adore books about sporty badass girls. Yet, when I first began to write Dangerous Play, there were few young-adult novels featuring fierce sporty girls. Of those, there were fewer which portrayed the powerful friendships that can emerge on girls’ sports teams. I want to read and write about girls who are defined by more than their love interests, who are dogged in the pursuit of their goals. In a world that so often judges girls by how their bodies look, sports offers an arena in which girls can view and value their bodies in an alternative way. And who doesn’t love to cheer for someone who beats the odds? 


I wrote...

Dangerous Play

By Emma Kress,

Book cover of Dangerous Play

What is my book about?

Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.

But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments, but one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.

The Self-Made Olympian

By Ron Daws,

Book cover of The Self-Made Olympian

Having quit running altogether because of a lack of improvement and a bad college experience, Ron Daws discovered a different way of running that brought him joy and success. Following the training of Arthur Lydiard, Daws began a road racing career that culminated in making the 1968 U.S. Olympic team in the marathon.

Who am I?

I have been a runner for 50 years and a coach for 30 years. From 2001-2016 I was the coach of Team USA Minnesota Distance Training Center. During that time I coached 24 U.S. National Champions, including an Olympian & 2 USATF Running Circuit Champions, at 1500 meters, 3000 meters, and 10,000 meters on the track; the mile, 10k, 15k, 10 miles, half-marathon, 20k, 25k, and marathon on the road; 4k, 6k, 8k and 10k in cross country.  Athletes I coached qualified for 30 U.S. national teams competing in IAAF World Championships in cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, and road, and achieved 73 top-three finishes in U.S. Championships. 


I wrote...

The River Road: Becoming a Runner in 1972

By Dennis Barker,

Book cover of The River Road: Becoming a Runner in 1972

What is my book about?

The River Road is an evocative novel about becoming a runner in 1972. Filled with compelling stories of runners, running, history, the 1972 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials and the Munich Olympics, it brings to life an era in which the U.S. competed for gold in nearly every distance running event. As many of the sport’s icons dominate their events in Eugene and prepare for Munich, fifteen-year-old Lenny prepares for his first season of varsity cross country. Inspired by Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, Lenny also learns that Olympic distance runners have come from Minnesota and trained on the same River Road on which he runs. A world of running lore that he never knew existed is opened to him and helps him begin to explore and realize his own ability to run.

The Happiest Girl in the World

By Alena Dillon,

Book cover of The Happiest Girl in the World

In this novel that feels ripped straight from the headlines, the life of a young woman training as an elite gymnast is upended when her best friend confides that their doctor has assaulted her. Not only is this story timely, but it provides a glimpse into the mind-boggling discipline and talent it takes to be an Olympic gymnast.


Who am I?

My novels explore women whose contributions to culture have been relegated to the footnotes of mainstream history books, and in few areas have women been more overlooked than in sports. Because of the achievements of today’s female athletes, ranging from the many athletic opportunities available to our young daughters to the professional success of women like Serena Williams, it’s easy to think that progress for women’s sports has come a long way—and in many ways, it has, thanks to legislative protections like Title IX—but these achievements reflect over a century’s worth of sacrifice by many unheralded women athletes. Here are five books that highlight this journey.


I wrote...

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

By Elise Hooper,

Book cover of Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

What is my book about?

Fast Girls is historical fiction inspired by the real-life women track stars of the late 1920s and ‘30s. Three young women—Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens—will join with others to defy society’s expectations of what women can achieve. As tensions bring the United States and Europe closer and closer to the brink of war, these women must fight for the chance to compete as the fastest women in the world amidst the pomp and pageantry of the Nazi-sponsored 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 

Every Reason We Shouldn't

By Sara Fujimura,

Book cover of Every Reason We Shouldn't

There are so many figure-skater-meets-hockey-player stories out there, and while I will always love The Cutting Edge, I adored how Sara Fujimura went for a new move with this novel by bringing in the world of speed skating. Olivia is the daughter of famous Olympians trying to figure out a normal teen life after her own skating falters. Her world collides with Jonah’s when he begins speed skating at her family’s struggling rink. A roller derby friend brings extra fun to this novel.


Who am I?

My hometown didn’t have an ice rink until I was in high school, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with figure skating. From making backyard rinks to coaching learn-to-skate, I did everything I could to spend more time on ice. I also voraciously devoured books with even a hint (like a frozen pond!) of figure skating. All too often, these attempts to spend more time in the skating world only resulted in frustration when authors messed up key details. This list includes my favorite books about skating that fellow figure skaters can enjoy without inaccuracies tripping up their extra ice time.


I wrote...

The Boy Next Door

By Katie Van Ark,

Book cover of The Boy Next Door

What is my book about?

Maddy’s been in love with the boy next door for forever. She spends time in Gabe’s arms every day – as his skating partner. How can she convince him they’re meant to be partners off the ice as well? Gabe knows he needs Maddy to make it to the Olympics. He’s never dated anyone for more than two weeks and there’s no way he’s risking thirteen years of training until their coach forces his hand. Will their new romantic program be the big break Maddy’s been hoping for or the big break-up that Gabe has always feared?

Gaming SEL

By Matthew Farber,

Book cover of Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning

If we want to inspire the world, we need to start by teaching the next generation. Gaming SEL shows us how games can teach important skills like compassion, care, and perspective-taking. Dr. Farber, the book’s author, and I have collaborated on research in this area, and it is exciting to see the power of games in helping our students learn, grow, and care about each other.


Who am I?

I first realized the power of games when I won the Geography Bee in my elementary school. I had been playing Carmen Sandiego, which encouraged me to study maps and read almanacs. I started to see how games could motivate interest in all different topics. But I didn’t realize I could make games until I was a graduate student at MIT, and I made an augmented reality game to teach history. Since then I have been designing games to inspire connection, care, and curiosity. I am Associate Professor and Director of Games at Marist College, and I have designed media for organizations like the World Health Organization, Scholastic, and Nickelodeon.


I wrote...

We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics

By Kat Schrier,

Book cover of We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics

What is my book about?

The world is in crisis. Can games help us to solve the world’s biggest problems—such as global pandemics, climate change, and racial and gender inequality?

Ethics and civics have always mattered, but perhaps they matter now more than ever before. Games are starting to be seen as communities for civic debate and problem-solving. The book, We the Gamers explores how we engage in civics and ethics when we play games. The book shares examples of all different types of games, including Minecraft, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Fortnite, When Rivers Were Trails, Buffalo, Quandary, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. We the Gamers shows us how we might repair and remake our world through gaming. 

Where Am I And Who's Winning?

By Andrew Baker,

Book cover of Where Am I And Who's Winning?

Pity or envy this sports journalist as he jet-lags around the world on an all-expenses-paid journey reporting on familiar Olympic events as well as competitive games he knows nothing about in countries he’s barely heard of – all on deadline. This is a hilarious whirlwind read for the armchair traveler. Although I’ve been a journalist and written several funny memoirs about travel, I have never had or even imagined such a unique travel experience. Probably neither have you. I loved the crazy pace, and the odd events and places. This book is a legal high.

Who am I?

Since I was a kid, “someplace else” has always looked good to me. I turned that passion into a career. I have been a travel writer for the New York Times and travel commenter for Public Radio International. Three of my published books are humorous travel memoirs. I’ve written books about what’s funny when your destination is middle age, the hilarious thrills and disasters that befall you when you’re pretending to be French in Provence, and the gender problems that arise when traveling while married. Bragging is a vice I usually avoid, but I can’t resist telling you that reviewers of my travel books have compared my humor to that of the late Erma Bombeck. I also enjoy giving credit to other successful, amusing humor writers.


I wrote...

Traveling While Married

By Mary-Lou Weisman,

Book cover of Traveling While Married

What is my book about?

What really happens when marriages leave home? Travel can put extra strain on a marriage. Being the same old couple in a new and different place is a disorienting experience. All too often, when people don’t know where they are, have jet lag, don’t speak the language, and can’t figure out the money or maintain intestinal regularity, they get hostile. The very concept of vacationing can mean different things to each partner. People like to possess a piece of the country they are visiting. Women like to wear it; men like to eat it. Does a vacation have to have palm trees? Does it have to be far away?

My husband Larry wants to go white water rafting. I prefer a spa. We compromise with surprising results. And those are just two of our fifteen adventures. This hilarious, insightful book is illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Koren.

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