Literary Medalists

The 10 Best Books About the Olympics

Tucked away in the vast library of mediocre books about the Olympics are some real gems. Olympic historian David Goldblatt surveys the field and picks the gold.

The Olympic’s relationship to literature did not get off to an auspicious start. Baron de Coubertin had long believed that sport was not antithetical to the arts, but a distinct and important component of a society’s cultural life. It therefore seemed natural to him, though not to many athletes and artists of the time, that the Olympic games should also stage artistic, literary, and musical competitions on the theme of sport. In the run up to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he made repeated attempts to persuade the Swedish hosts to stage such an event, but after consulting their own artistic community and finding them either baffled or antipathetic to the notion, they politely declined the offer. Unperturbed, the baron announced independently that there would be a competitive artistic strand to the 1912 games and sent out a call for entries to be sent to his own address, where, as far as one can tell, he alone served as the judging panel.

In the poetry section, the prize went to Hohrod and Eschbach’s florid “Ode to Sport.” It certainly would have appealed to the baron’s own rather peculiar religiosity and overdramatic understanding of ancient and modern sporting history. Hohrod and Eschbach, as well as rare prolix poets, were names taken from two villages (Hohrodberg and Eschbach-au-Val, to be precise) close to the birthplace of Coubertin’s wife, and were thus, in addition, his rather obvious pseudonym. Having set up his own competition to which he submitted his own poem, he then adjudged it the winner.

The literary history of the Olympics has not improved much since. The artistic competitions were thankfully abandoned in 1952, but the games have yet to inspire novelists or playwrights but for a handful of thrillers and romances. There is no shortage of academic and historical work, but it is best described as informative rather than compelling.

There are however, honorable exceptions. Given what an extraordinary amount of old rot has been written and spoken by the IOC about the ancient games, it is best to intellectually and historically clear the air with Nigel Spivey’s The Ancient Olympics, which makes clear just how different and strange the mental world of Greek athletics was. For those with a taste for the details, a dip into the original sources—like Herodotus’s Histories, especially in the fabulous new translation by Tom Holland, and the Greek 2nd century traveler Pausanias’s Guide to Ancient Greece—will be rewarding.

When it come to the revival of the modern games, the literary barometer collapses. Most of the hagiographies of De Coubertin are only exceeded in their awfulness by the man’s own collected works Olympism. For something pithy, fabulously sourced, and devastatingly well argued, see David Young’s The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, which makes it clear that the baron was not the only revivalist, though he never credited his real influences.

There are innumerable books about singular olympiads, most of them hugely informative, few of them hugely readable. Among the best, on the academic side of things, is Chris Young and Kay Schiller’s The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany; who else is going to tell you that the organizers consciously choose an electronic glockenspiel as an alternative to military brass bands in the stadium? On the journalistic side Jack Ludwig’s sardonic Five Ring Circus: The Montreal Olympics is a lost gem.

For something less comprehensive, but more illuminating, I would point readers towards the essayistic work of novelist Primo Levi on the 1960 Rome Olympics, critic Ian Buruma on Tokyo 1964, George Plimpton’s coverage of the 1980 Moscow Games for Time, and the urban wanderings of London’s dark prince of pyschogeography, Ian Sinclair, on Athens, Beijing, and the London games in his surreal and acidic Ghost Milk.

I. Buruma, Inventing Japan: 1853—1964, Random House (2004)

P. de Coubertin, Olympism, ed. Norbert Müller, Comité International Olympique (2000)

C. Levi, Fleeting Rome: In Search of La Dolce Vita, John Wiley (2005)

J. Ludwig, Five Ring Circus: The Montreal Olympics, Doubleday Canada (1976)

C. Habicht, Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece, University of California Press (1998)

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G. Plimpton, “Moscow Games,” Harper’s, October 1980, and “Paper Tourist: A Yank in Moscow,” Time, Aug. 4, 1980.

K. Schiller and C. Young, The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany, University of California Press (2010)

I. Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, Penguin (2011)

N. Spivey, The Ancient Olympics, Oxford University Press (2005)

D. Young, The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, Johns Hopkins University Press (1996)