The Olympics may sneak up on its intended audience—that is, the entire world—but once the Games are in full swing, our attention matches their intensity. Warm up by exploring the fascinating history of this quadrennial athletic extravaganza.

THE FIRST MARATHON

London is the only city to host the Olympics three times, having done so previously in 1908 and 1948. Journalist David Davis’ Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush relates the story of three men who arrived at the 1908 Games to compete in the first modern Olympic marathon. Johnny Hayes was an Irish scrapper from the streets of New York City, Dorando Pietri a candymaker from Italy, and Tommy Longboat a Native American by way of Canada. All three men had humble roots, and the account of their race is gripping, including the contentious outcome.

Yet Davis’ book is also a profile of a time—when the Olympics had only recently been resuscitated and when sports in general were beginning to attract rabid spectator interest. “London 1908 serves as the blueprint for subsequent Olympics,” Davis writes. “They were the first to involve national squads. . . . They were the first to have an Opening Ceremony, with each country’s team marching en masse, and the first to feature a newly built, state-of-the-art stadium.” It was also the first Olympiad to be extensively photographed and filmed, setting a precedent that has never wavered.

HOOP STARS

The U.S. Olympic basketball squad of 1992—led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—vanquished its opponents with a virtual flick of their talented wrists. Longtime Sports Illustrated staffer Jack McCallum puts their accomplishments in perspective in Dream Team, which provides the history of how the team came to be, but also benefits mightily from the author’s updated interviews with the principals.

The Dream Team was untouchable on the court, and one can argue that this Olympic episode had more to do with promotion than the spirit of Olympic competition. But more interesting than the basketball dominance are the behind-the-scenes politics that spawned this particular collection of players. McCallum brings events vividly to life—including the concerns about Magic’s recent HIV diagnosis and Charles Barkley’s off-the-court antics—and effectively gets inside the heads of his famous subjects, exposing their egos and occasional insecurities. McCallum writes with energy, and his book is way more riveting than, say, Michael & Co.’s 117-85 drubbing of Croatia in the Gold Medal game.

FOR ARMCHAIR WARRIORS

Finally, British writers David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton smartly serve up How to Watch the Olympics. This handbook, with its fast facts and useful overviews of the many events, plus its thumbnail portraits of past Olympic performers, should rest comfortably on the easy chair, ready for quick access as the TV broadcasts commence.

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