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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'