Books to Get You Thinking

For two weeks in August, the eyes of the world were turned on Rio de Janeiro when Brazil hosted the 2016 Olympic Games. It was two weeks of intense excitement as more than 11,000 athletes from 207 different countries competed in events ranging from the popular track and field, gymnastics and swimming to the newly introduced sports of golf and rugby sevens. Though the ancient Olympic Games date all the way back to 776 BC, it was more than a thousand years later that the Games in Athens, held in 1896, signaled the start of the tradition of the modern international Olympics with nations from all over the world participating in the Games every four years. The Games serve as a constant reminder of the tremendous diversity of the human race and the enormous energy which inspires nations to explore performance levels that had been impossible before, by stretching limits at both individual and team levels. Among the high stakes and drama of winning medals, it is ultimately the triumph of human endurance and spirit that lends significance to the Games:

"In a world rife with failure and bitter compromise, they’re dedicated to dreaming and to the proposition that limits are entirely negotiable, because they reflect only what has been done to date and not what’s doable in time.

"They make the case that part of being fully alive is pushing yourself as far as you can go. Every Olympic record, every personal best and every unlikely comeback is an individual achievement, yes, but it’s also a universal example and metaphor."Note 1Bruni, Frank, "The Crying Games." The New York Times, 10 August 2016, p. A19.

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt
The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt, acclaimed sportswriter, broadcaster, journalist and author, pens this rich and fascinating history of the Olympics. He examines, through different lenses, the social, cultural and political perspectives underlying the Games through the centuries. The Olympics were first inaugurated back in 1896 in Athens, but it was only the Los Angeles Games in 1932 that introduced the glitz and grandiosity surrounding the Olympic events of today. Notable changes have occurred over the years in terms of organization and scale, including the lighting and burning of the Olympic flame for the duration of the games and expansive stadiums that resound with the national anthems of the winning team’s home country. With a comprehensive understanding of the politics of sport, Goldblatt interweaves countless interesting vignettes that reveal underlying tensions, conflicts and politics of the host and participating countries. Often the conservative mindset of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) conflicted with their attempts to ensure smooth planning and the separation of politics from sports. Goldblatt’s extensively researched book covers both the glorious moments that define the crowning achievements of athletes and the diversity and inclusiveness of the Games today, as well as tragic moments, notably the massacre of the athletes during the Munich Games. Readers also witness the harsh socio-political realities prevalent at different moments in history that inevitably find their way into the Games—the exclusion and questions raised about women participation, the racial walls faced by black athletes and the spirit of German chauvinism and anti-Jewish sentiments that dominated the Berlin Games held during Hitler’s regime.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
In this spellbinding book, readers follow the captivating story of nine young boys from humble backgrounds who were sons of loggers, fishermen, farmers and shipyard workers from the American West. Displaying remarkable grit, resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible odds, they formed the men’s rowing team of the University of Washington. At home in America, they rowed successfully against the powerful rival team from Berkeley as well as the teams from the elite universities of the Northeast, grounded in privilege and entitlement. Finally participating in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, they achieved the seemingly impossible win over the aristocratic and much-touted German rowing team. Based on in-depth research of private journals and diaries as well as personal interviews, Daniel Brown picks up the poignant story of the crew members, their coaches, as well as George Pocock, an English craftsman with a passion for building boats. A focal point of the book is Joe Rantz, one of the team members, who had faced an exceptionally difficult childhood, mired in poverty and abandoned by his family when he was a teen. The author traces Joe’s struggles growing up, and how, in the end, it was his quest to regain his dignity and place in the world that spurred him to rowing and vying for a spot in the University’s crew team. A multi-faceted book that provides in part the history of rowing and, at the same time, an inspiring personal story of incredible courage and tenacity set in the tumultuous era of the Great Depression in the United States and a Germany witnessing the rising tide of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schapp
Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schapp
This is the spellbinding saga of Jesse Owens, the son of an African-American share cropper, who spent his early childhood in Alabama and who became the one of the greatest Olympic stars of all times, winning four gold medals and setting three records in the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. The Games were held as a showpiece for Hitler’s Nazi regime and Owens’ unparalleled performance was a strong political statement to the world, denouncing the lie of Hitler’s propagated dogma of racial Aryan supremacy. Jeremy Schapp, ESPN broadcaster and journalist, uses in-depth archival research and interviews to bring alive the fascinating story behind the rise of Jesse Owens as the world’s invincible track-and-field performer. Despite acquiring the status of an international sports celebrity, Owens had to face racial indignities and struggle to make a living on his return to the US from the Games. It was not until another twenty years in 1955 that he was given the recognition he deserved. Subsequently, Owens became an effective goodwill ambassador for the American government as well as for American industry, traveling to different countries at the beginning of the cold war era, symbolizing America as a land of opportunities even for minorities. Triumph is not only the inspiring portrait of one man’s courage, grit and talent, his human side and his deep friendship with Luz Long, the German broad jumper, but is also a brilliant work of history where sports interplays with politics.


Note 1 Bruni, Frank, "The Crying Games." The New York Times, 10 August 2016, p. A19.
-Nita Mathur


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