There are few things better than enjoying a book for more than I expected. While I imagined How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton was going to be little more than a thin literary gesture designed to capitalize on the London Games, it won me over. This is a book that didn't have to be as good as it is. From my new review in the Christian Science Monitor:
... this is a wonderfully entertaining and informative read, one that caught me incessantly putting “Did you know ...” questions to my friends. Did you know shot put has its roots in throwing cannonballs? Did you know the steeplechase began as an Irish race with participants running between churches? Did you know the oldest Olympic gold medalist was 53? (She was British archer Sybil Newall who smoked the 1908 London Olympics).
Such peeks into larger stories about the evolution of individual sports and the Olympic tournament do not come without context. “How to Watch the Olympics” moves evenly through the Games, with chapters on each ceremony and each summer sport. It’s laid out with sidebars, graphics, appendixes, and photos. There is a concise narration of the status of each event: rules, strategy, record-holders, and history. Like any good guidebook, “How to Watch the Olympics” gives us times, places, and dates for London events, but it’s the well-told stories that are best. We learn, for example, what Minoan bull-jumping has to do with modern gymnastics, why South Korea dominates archery, and what the British royal family has to do with the distance of a marathon.
Rather than allowing infectious enthusiasm to turn this book into a trivia-spouting cheerleader, the authors also tackle provoking matters, chronicling controversies ranging from the age of gymnasts to doping to why the father of tae kwon do was disowned by the sport’s governing body. Politics, of course, weighs heavily. While the authors pay attention to well-known stories, such as that of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it also looks at lesser-told tales. At the Melbourne Olympics, for instance, just after the Hungarian Revolution, there was a ferocious rivalry between athletes from the USSR and Hungary. When the men’s water polo teams met in the final group game, they literally came to blows, “the ball all but forgotten.” With blood in the water, police intervened.