As the summer Olympics race to their conclusion in Rio, I thought I would jump at the opportunity to raise a cheer for some of the Olympic related books in HMH’s history. And just like a swimmer in the individual medley or a decathlete, HMH excels in more than one category, with both fiction and non-fiction Olympic tales written for every level of reader.
Kicking off the list is the story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - one of the best of all time.
Many may already be familiar with Owens’ tale of triumph - an African-American sprinter who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, demonstrating how false Hitler’s myth of white superiority was, but author Jeremy Schaap’s unprecedented access to the Owens family and archives, reintroduces Owen’s story in a wonderfully powerful and gripping way in Triumph (2015).
Though many Olympic stories often begin with a chronicle of trials overcame prior to Olympic glory, sometimes life’s challenges come after the lights are turned off and everyone has flown home. This was the case for Olympic cyclist Davis Phinney, which he explains in his book The Happiness of Pursuit (2011).
Phinney won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics and also competed in several Tour de France races, ultimately winning two stages. In 2000, however, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s. His memoir weaves past, present and future together as he describes his best cycling days, his fight against the disease, and his son’s emerging cycling career.
Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers & Alberto Salazar
Another familiar sports writing theme is stories of rivalries that inspire athletes to push themselves harder than they ever thought possible in the spirit of competition. In Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar made Running Go Boom (2013), author Cameron Stracher tells the story of running and how it rapidly transformed from something that only a few people did, to a major American pastime thanks to rivalries between Olympians Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar and their ability to make running look so darn easy (and beautiful.)
Roger Bannister, John Landy & Wes Santee
Twenty-five years earlier a very similar rivalry was happening among three men determined to break the four minute mile record. No one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes, and some experts even said that it was not physically possible to do so, but in 1954, Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santee set their sights on breaking the decade-old record, following their participation in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Author Neal Bascomb narrates their quest in his 2005 book, The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It. I won’t tell you who broke the record, but I will tell you that currently the world record for the mile is 3:43.13.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph & Nadia Comaneci
It is important to note that these classic Olympic tales of glory not only celebrate incredible male athletes, but also countless inspirational female athletes.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias won two gold medals (80 meter hurdles and javelin throw) and a silver (high jump) at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She then went on to play professional golf, winning 10 LPGA titles before retiring and breaking many barriers for women along the way.
Wilma Rudolph had polio as a child and wore a leg brace for several years, but she went on to win three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1960 Olympics (100 meter, 200 meter, 4x100 relay).
Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won five gold medals, three silver, and one bronze during her Olympic career, and was the first ever gymnast to receive a perfect score.
Olympic Stories for Young Readers
Finally, for the youngest of readers, authors Mem Fox and Helen Lester have tapped into the animal kingdom for tales of Olympic greatness among koalas and penguins. In Koala Lou (1988), Lou the koala trains to compete in the Bush Olympics in an effort to attract the attention of her busy mother and in Tacky and the Winter Games, Tacky the penguin reminds readers of the underlying joy and enthusiasm that propels athletes to greatness.
So let’s keep cheering on the athletes, and cheering on good stories, too. Even though Carli Lloyd and her US women’s soccer teammates have been eliminated this year, we can all look forward to her memoir when it hits the shelves this fall.