Olympic tie-ins: We've come a long way since shin-kicking

These books are full of social history and extraordinary life stories, as well as arcane trivia, Simon Redfern stays the course
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The Independent Culture

With London 2012 and television's 2,500 hours of coverage in full swing, Olympic devotees may struggle to find much time for reading before the closing ceremony in a week's time. But those curious to know just how the quadrennial event grew so huge need look no further than the monumental, magisterial The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC by David Miller (Mainstream, £40). Official it may be, but Miller does not flinch from detailing the corruption and dubious politicking that have accompanied the movement's success.

In London's first Games in 1908, Britain topped the medal table with 56 gold medals, 51 silver and 39 bronze. Yet all was not sweetness and light; it poured down, and in London's Olympic Follies (Robson Press, £8.99), Graeme Kent charts the frequent accusations of cheating, and the scandal at the opening ceremony when the US team's flag-bearer refused to dip the Stars and Stripes before the Royal Box, as protocol demanded. But, belying its title, his anecdote-packed account acknowledges that there was also much to admire.

The build-up to London 1948 had a distinctly grudging air, as many grumbled that a country still struggling to recover from the war had greater priorities. Yet, as Janie Hampton chronicles in The Austerity Olympics (Aurum, £8.99), it turned out to be a resounding success. The picture that emerges in this lively book is of a cheerfully low-key affair in which competitors travelled by bus and were billeted with local families. Perhaps the most eye-popping detail is that these "make do and mend" Games actually made a profit of £29,420 on the £732,268 expenditure.

Even before those official Games, Britain could boast a lengthy Olympic history, as Martin Polley explains in The British Olympics (English Heritage, £17.99), a rich mix of social as well as sporting history allied to imaginative illustration. Exactly 400 years ago at Dover's Hill in Gloucestershire, the Cotswold Olympicks were born, and while events such as shin-kicking no longer feature in the modern scheme of things, the initiative inspired a number of similar events. Indeed, a convincing case can be made for one of these inspiring Pierre de Coubertin to create the modern Olympics. After visiting the Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire in 1890, he wrote: "The fact that the Olympic Games … are being revived today is due not to a Hellene, but to Dr W P Brookes [the Wenlock event's instigator]".

Harold Abrahams is remembered now mainly because of the film Chariots of Fire, but it's still surprising that Running With Fire by Mark Ryan (Robson Press, £9.99) is the first biography of Britain's first 100m champion. After his triumph in Paris in 1924, Abrahams went on to be a powerful voice in athletics, ending up president of the Amateur Athletic Federation, and would probably have been knighted, like his two brothers, if he hadn't incensed the Wilson government by opposing sporting sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Mark Ryan doesn't gloss over the imperfections of this chippy man, but his sympathetic approach celebrates the runner rather than the reactionary.

The other hero of Chariots of Fire, the 400m gold medallist Eric Liddell, has been the subject of several biographies. Be warned that the reissued and updated Eric Liddell: Pure Gold by David McCasland (Lion Hudson, £9.99) only devotes a couple of chapters to his athletic exploits. But then the other life of this devout Scot, who became a missionary in China and died in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, is far more extraordinary.

Both Liddell and Abrahams would have been horrified by the cynical drug-taking of more recent Games, none more so than Seoul 1988, when six of the eight 100m finalists were later linked to drugs. In The Dirtiest Race in History (Wisden, £18.99), Richard Moore examines that race and surrounding events in forensic detail, having interviewed the runners, including the "winner", Ben Johnson. His vivid reconstruction reveals a story far more complex than it appeared at the time.

The man who sat with Ben Johnson in the doping control centre in Seoul was Professor Arne Ljungqvist, who had represented Sweden as a high jumper in the 1952 Olympics before qualifying as a doctor. Returning to sport as a member of the Swedish Athletics Federation in 1971, he was astonished to discover via an anonymous questionnaire that nearly half his country's athletes were using anabolic steroids (which at that time weren't illegal). Almost single-handedly at first, he fought to turn the tide of popular opinion against drugs, and his autobiography, Doping's Nemesis (SportsBooks, £17.99), offers an unrivalled insider's account of that battle, which at 80 he is still helping to wage.

Love is the drug of choice for many athletes in the Olympic Village, closely followed – if The Secret Olympian (Bloomsbury, £8.99) is to be believed – by alcohol. But for the most part, this is an interesting examination of the experience of being an Olympic athlete rather than a sensational exposé. As for the identity of the author, who competed for Team GB at Athens 2004, there are clues aplenty sprinkled throughout the text, especially for those with any knowledge of British rowers.

And if, after 19 days, London 2012 has you toppling over with overkill, look out for Nicholas Lezard's The Nolympics: One Man's Struggle Against Sporting Hysteria (Penguin, £8.99), due in early September. Written during the course of the Games, it promises to be a dispeptic diatribe, with some jokes thrown in. Don't expect Lord Coe to buy a copy.