The 2012 Olympic Games kick off in London this week. In celebration of everything that is awe-inspiring, amazing and just inspirational about the Games and the athletes who make them, we’ve rounded up a list of books to help share the spirit of the XXX Olympiad.

Read more books related to the London Olympics.

Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sports
John D. Barrow

To enjoy this book, readers need only a basic knowledge of high school math, even when Barrow discusses more complicated subjects such as probabilities. He shows how the relationship between time and distance determines the best strategy for kicking the ball in rugby or soccer. Turning to track and field, Barrow speculates that in order to top his world-record 100-meter time, sprinter Usain Bolt could reduce his reaction time, but an even better bet would be to race on a high-altitude track in Mexico City while getting an assist from a high tailwind. The author explains why runners, given a choice, don't select either the inside position on a circular track, even though it is the shortest distance, or the outside, with its gentler curve, because they want to gauge the speed of the runners on either side…Using hypothetical examples, Barrow introduces the fundamentals of statistics and the application of Bayes' theorem to conditional probabilities, and he includes discussions of skydiving, rowing, triathlons and water polo, among other athletic endeavors. An illuminating mix for sports fans and math buffs looking to hone their skills.

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showdown Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze

David Davis

As the Summer Olympics, and all the attendant pomp and circumstance, prepare to return to London in 2012, this book serves as a reminder of the event’s less-glamorous origins and of a race that helped change its history. Tracing the beginnings of both the modern games and the modern marathon race, Davis focuses on three runners: pre-race favorite Tom Longboat, a Native American running for Canada, the largely unknown Italian pastry cook Dorando Pietri, and the scrappy Irish-American Johnny Hayes. The race became a sensation after a controversial finish, sparking a marathon craze and helping establish the Olympics as the headline-making international gala it is today…The author argues convincingly that if the 1908 Games had not been a success, the Olympics might not have continued and certainly would not have taken their current form. The same can also be said for the marathon, now a major event around the world, whose distance was first established by the 1908 Olympic course.

johson7 Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World

Boris Johnson

The mayor of London demonstrates that understanding his city requires an acquaintance with key historical personages, from Alfred the Great to Keith Richards. On the eve of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the author provides a lively thematic guide to the city’s historical evolution as represented by the legacy of notable Londoners, ancient and modern, from the Romans who overran the city to the great statesman who staunchly defended it from attack, Winston Churchill. Johnson has served as mayor since 2008, previously the editor of The Spectator and thus a trained, amiable journalist. With an engaging, felicitous tone, the author obviously enjoys offering his account of what the English have done best, from spreading the good word in the form of the King James Bible to parliamentary democracy and habeas corpus to the marvels of the English language. Johnson pays tribute to numerous illustrious Londoners, some better known than others…Along the way there are shorter bios of some incredibly important innovators and inventors, such as Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I and fashioner of the flush toilet of which she was so fond; Beau Brummel and his now-ubiquitous men’s suit; and Denis Johnson and his significant modifications on the bicycle in 19th-century London. In this amusing, rah-rah pep rally for the imminent crush of summer tourists, the author shows that there is much more to London than Big Ben, London Bridge and William Shakespeare.

dreamteam Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever

Jack McCallum

The 1992 United States men’s basketball team not only stands as the most talented basketball team ever, but it remains something of a cultural phenomenon that helped make basketball a truly global sport and the NBA an international brand. Longtime Sports Illustrated writer McCallum, who covered the “Dream Team” at the Barcelona Olympics, recounts the process whereby NBA stars cruised to the gold medal, crushing opponents who would later pose for pictures with and ask for autographs from the American players. The author sketches a group biography in which some figures (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley) perhaps rightfully garner more attention than others and in which even the selection of the team became a source for drama. Unbeknownst to most, Jordan and Magic (recently diagnosed with HIV) jockeyed for alpha-dog status while Bird was happy to cede the spotlight, comfortable in his accomplishments and willing to use the Olympics as a career capstone before retiring…McCallum tells the story well, albeit occasionally too choppily, and some might find that he inserts himself into the story a bit too freely. However, he also effectively evokes the remarkable team while placing it within the larger historical context.

igniting Igniting the Flame: America's First Olympic Team

Jim Reisler

Imagine: An American Olympian shows up for the discus event, having never really tried it before; some accommodating Greek athletes demonstrate, and he wins. Such was the state of turn-of-the-century international athletic competitions. And so it was that a small American team (14 members) traveled to Athens, having no idea what sort of competition they would face. Not much: They came home with 11 firsts to a country now ecstatic about the Games (yawns had accompanied their departure). Reisler weaves a handful of narrative threads: the story of the resurrection of the Olympic Games, and of the men who accomplished it; the primitive means of travel and lodging; the stories of the individual American athletes and accounts of the events; and some whatever-happened-to-those-guys follow-up…Reisler writes well about the oddities—the photograph of the sprinters lined up in a potpourri of poses is a howl—but he sets us up for an exciting 100-meter race, cuts away, then disappoints later with his perfunctory account. Though the author sometimes writes like the team’s PR agent, he skillfully records the cries and struggles attending a nearly miraculous rebirth.