Shutterstock © Sergei Bachlakov
The Olympics, according to gold-medal-winning swimmer Amanda Beard, are nothing like what we see on TV, “eight long days condensed down into a few minutes, framed by heartwarming or heartrending vignettes” of athletes’ life stories. Instead, she writes in her memoir, “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry,” imagine empty days punctuated by a few minutes of activity, sleep deprivation, and endless security mazes between events. And those heartbreaking stories sportscasters tell about athletes’ struggles to get there? They barely scratch the surface. For insight into what's really happening behind the scenes of the upcoming Summer Games in London, dive into these biographies and memoirs from Olympic competitors over the past century.
“The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for Olympic Gold” by David Halberstam
Rather than writing about crowd-pleasing events like track and field or gymnastics, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Halberstam follows aspiring Olympians at the 1984 single scull trials. In a world where rowing is a little understood, often overlooked sport, Halberstam asks why some young athletes devote their lives to a single-minded pursuit to be the best, despite the fact that any fame they win will be fleeting, and financial remuneration is non-existent. As he writes about the trials, “no tickets were sold, and the community in which it was held, Princeton, New Jersey, largely ignored it.” The competitors slept four to a bed to save money, and ate whatever meals they could scrounge for free. But to the athletes there to compete for a spot at the games, these sacrifices were nothing compared to the daily punishment of rowing workouts. The chance at Olympic glory made it all worth it.
“Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games” by Lopez Lomong with Mark Tabb
Lomong, who was born Lopepe Lomong in South Sudan, was kidnapped at age six, and escaped captivity by running for several days straight across the border into Sudan. After ten years at a refugee camp, where he started running 18 mile laps, barefoot, every day, he was sent to the United States, where he pursued his running career in earnest. Nike sponsorship followed, and in 2008 Lomong carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games in China. Despite being eliminated in the semifinals, Lomong has had happier endings in his personal life -- after years of believing his family had been killed in Sudan, he learned his mother and brothers were alive and living in Nairobi. Eventually he returned to visit his boyhood village and built a church and school.
“In the Water They Can’t See You Cry” by Amanda Beard with Rebecca Paley
As a kid, Beard was happiest in the water, playing Marco Polo at the local pool until her lips turned blue. When Beard went to the summer Olympics in Atlanta at the age of fourteen, she was more interested in sampling the free McDonald's in the Olympic Village (and nervous about how to do her laundry) than the outcome of her events. Nonetheless, she won two silvers and a gold. Even as she went on to compete at three more Olympic Games, winning a total of seven medals, her personal life was falling apart, as she battled undiagnosed depression and turned to drugs, alcohol, and cutting to cope with the pain.
“Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics” by Jeremy Schaap
Jesse Owens was just twenty-two when he traveled to Berlin, where he won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games, resoundingly disproving Hitler’s theories of a master race and becoming an American hero. But Owens, who claimed “all we athletes get out of this Olympic business is a view out of a train or airplane window,” had to struggle to support his family, at one point competing against racehorses as publicity stunts. Still, Owens would be remembered as one the most famous and important athletes of all time, not only for his triumphs on the track, but also for what he did for his race and country.