Books to Read Before the Summer Olympics

With the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris right around the corner, we’re training to be good spectators by reading books that tie into the sports included in the summer games! Including both fiction and non-fiction titles, and with settings from Athens to Amsterdam and Berlin to Rio, many of these books are directly related to one of the summer Olympic games over the past century.

Runner on track + 3 books

If you’re participating in our Summer Reading Challenge, selecting one of our recommendations from this list is a great way to check off the Olympic book prompt.

Books About the Olympics

The books in this section specifically mention the Olympics (or fictionalized versions of the games).

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid book cover

Book Summary

When eight-year-old Samia discovers her love for running, her best friend Ali appoints himself as her coach. Focusing on Samia’s running helps them mentally escape their tumultuous life in Somalia. Samia has her eye on the Olympics, with dreams of following in the footsteps of the great Somali runner Mo Farah.

For years, Samia and Ali trained as war and political tensions escalated around them. The restrictions placed on women made things even harder, but the duo persevered, and Samia was selected to represent Somalia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics while she was still a teenager. While she finished last, the stadium cheered for this skinny teen in modest clothing who earned a chance to run with the best in the world.

By the 2012 games in London, Somalia had deteriorated even more. To attend, Samia was forced to travel like a migrant, alone across Africa and the Mediterranean.

The Book Girls Say…

This book is on the shorter side at 250 pages and was originally published in Italian. While it’s fictionalized, it is based on the true story of Somalian athlete Samia Omar.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This is the non-fiction story of nine working-class boys – sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers – who beat all the odds to become the American rowing team. They weren’t expected to win at home, let alone defeat others on the international stage. Out of the depths of the Depression, these unlikely young men shocked the world by defeating the German team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

In writing this story, Brown drew upon the boys’ own journals and vivid memories to paint a portrait of an era.

The Book Girls Say…

If you enjoy sports-related non-fiction, you may also like Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. It tells the incredible story of a racehorse with crooked legs who was written off until three unlikely men changed his fortunes in 1938.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Books Set in the 1930s
Best Books From 2013

Winterland Book Cover

Book Summary

This novel is set in Norilsk, the northernmost city of Siberia, where the brutal weather mirrors the sacrifices of young Russian gymnasts competing for their country. When Anya was 8, she was selected for the famed USSR gymnastics program. Her father is thrilled, but she can’t share the news with her mother, who disappeared years earlier.

Anya’s only confidant is her neighbor, Vera, an older woman who survived unspeakable horrors during her ten years in a Gulag camp. While Anya doesn’t know this, Vera was also her mom’s confidant and may be able to help solve the mystery of her disappearance.

The Book Girls Say…

Despite the title, which refers to the brutal weather of Siberia, this book is all about one of the most popular summer Olympic sports.

The character of Elena is based on Elena based on the real gymnast Elena Mukhina, who was paralyzed performing a now-banned move (the Thomas Salto).

Let the Games Begin book cover

Book Summary

Go-getter Olivia just graduated from university and has her eyes set on a dream job – working for the 2024 Summer Games in Athens. Zeke is a runner focused on securing his title of fastest man in the world. But he’s also a dreamy heart-throb who just had a well-publicized breakup with a gymnast.

On the first day of training, Olivia and Zeke literally collide and instantly connect. But it’s not just a fun summer for these two. Olivia’s dream internship isn’t what she expected, and the competition begins to stir up uncomfortable memories for Zeke. Can they still achieve their individual dreams while pursuing a new romance?

The Book Girls Say…

We’re excited for this fun romance set in the Olympic village. The book doesn’t come out until closer to the start of the games, but you might be able to get on a library hold list before the publication date.

Book Summary

Zoe and Kate are both world-class athletes who have been friends and rivals since they began Elite cycling training in England. Despite their very different personalities (Zoe is adventurous while Kate is more cautious and reliable), they become best friends and see each other through many ups and downs.

Although they’ve always been competitors, they’ve managed to limit their rivalry to cycling and not let it seep into their friendship. At least that was the plan…

We are first introduced to the women in 2004 at the time of the Athens Olympics, and then the story picks up as the 2012 Olympics in London approaches. It will be the final Olympics for both women, and they know they’ll be pushed to their physical and emotional limits.

The Book Girls Say…

The storyline of this book extends beyond the story of the sport of cycling and delves into the personal lives of the women and their challenges off the track.

Bliss, Remembered book cover

Book Summary

At age 82, Sydney is dying and finally ready to tell her son about her trip to the 1932 Olympics in Berlin as a member of the US Swim team. Over the course of the novel, which is told in alternating 1936 + 2004 timelines, we learn how Sydney ended up in Berlin. In the 2004 timeline, Sydney is watching the Athens Olympics with her son as she reveals her past.

Real people are mentioned throughout the book, including athletes like Eleanor Holm, and Leni Riefenstahl, who was in attendence to documented the Olympics for Hitler. However, readers say that this isn’t a war novel or even a sports novel. Instead, it’s a slow-burn, character-driven read focused on family secrets.

The Book Girls Say…

Author Frank Deford was a regular sports commentator on NPR‘s Morning Edition from 1980 until his death in 2017.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 05/26/2024
Murder at the Olympics book cover

Book Summary

Cozy mystery fans will love this trip to the 1928 Games in Holland with the characters Ginger, Scout, and Basil. While the trio is on holiday to watch the games, Scout takes a job helping with the horses in the stable.

Female athletes are only allowed to participate in a handful of events, so it’s extra surprising when a competing British woman turns up dead in one of Amsterdam’s canals. Basil & Ginger must step in to help the Amsterdam police get to the bottom of the case.

The Book Girls Say…

This is a quick, light read, however, you may still learn something new about the real 1928 Olympic boycott by the British women’s athletics team.

While this is book 23 in the Ginger Gold mystery series, readers say that it also works well as a standalone. You won’t be lost if you start here, but if you’re already familiar with Ginger, you’ll find little nods to other books in the series.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 05/27/2024
Fast Girls book cover

Book Summary

In the 1928 Olympics, Betty was part of the first women’s track and field team. She came home as America’s Golden Girl, but a near-fatal plane crash changed her future.

Louise is one of the few Black girls in her Massachusetts town, and she sees competing in track & field as a way to prove her worth on a level playing field. She risks everything to join the Olympic team.

Helen is an awkward and poor tomboy in Missouri, but dreams of escaping the hardships on the farm through her athleticism. It seems like a pipe dream until a chance encounter changes everything.

With the world creeping closer to war, Betty, Louise, and Helen fight for their chance to compete at the 1936 games in Berlin. All three main characters are based on the lives of real trailblazing women who were a part of the first integrated women’s Olympic team.

The Book Girls Say…

The majority of this book takes place from 1928 to 1936, during the lead-up to the Olympics, so don’t expect the characters to be in Berlin until closer to the end.

Some reviewers state that this novel’s approach and writing feel like YA fiction, with a bit less depth than could have been explored.

Rodchenkov Affair book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

In this memoir, which was named the 2020 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, and which tells the full story behind the 2017 Oscar Award-winning film, Icarus, the author details how he was the mastermind behind, and then the whistleblower that brought down, Russia’s secret doping empire.

This story charts Rodchenkov’s childhood growing up behind the Iron Curtain, his first encounter with doping as a student-athlete at Moscow State University, and his career working for the Soviet Olympic Committee.

In 2015, Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre was suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following revelations of an elaborate state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The doping program involved a nearly undetectable steroid delivery system known as ‘Duchesse cocktail’ and tampering with and switching of urine samples in a complex state-sanctioned cover-up.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God

Book Summary

Written by a native of Brazil and a prize-winning journalist, this engaging non-fiction looks back at a city filled with unfortunate poverty and corruption as it prepared to host huge international events – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

While the book robustly covers the problems that plagued the city and the background that set the stage for them, it also focuses on the wide range of people dedicated to helping Rio de Janeiro achieve its potential. 

That Summer in Berlin book cover

Book Summary

During the summer of 1936, Germany began once again to rise in power. In denial about the threat of war, the English aristocracy looked to heal relations with Germany via the age-old institution of marriage. Debutantes flocked to Berlin – among them was Viviane Alden. But unlike the women looking for romantic matches, Viviane has a different purpose. 

With camera in hand, she looks like just another pretty young tourist taking holiday photos during the summer Olympics, but in reality, she’s seeking photographic evidence that Germany is rearming. To assist her mission, she’s paired with a journalist who is closely guarding his heart.

Viviane expected to encounter hatred and injustice in Germany, but with the eyes of the world on Berlin, the country was on its best behavior. As they graciously welcome tourists with a celebratory atmosphere of goodwill, Viviane is determined to uncover the truth.

The Book Girls Say…

Reviewers describe this book as a perfect mix of adventure, intrigue, and historical romance.

Head Over Heels book cover

Book Summary

Avery has spent her entire life training as an Olympic gymnast. But then a disastrous performance ends her career. Her best friend, Jasmine, went on to become an Olympic champion and then married their emotionally abusive coach, which sent Avery reeling.

After breaking up with her boyfriend, who was also a star athlete, Avery returns home to Massachusetts. Ryan, a new coach, asks for Avery’s help with a promising young gymnast with Olympic aspirations. Although her return to the gym is reluctant, sparks begin to fly with Ryan. But then, everything changes again when a gymnastic scandal breaks, impacting both Avery & Jasmine.

The Book Girls Say…

While this romance gets slightly lower ratings than we hoped, we know several of you may still have it on your shelf as a 2020 Book of the Month pick, just like Melissa does.

Three-Year Swim Club book cover

Book Summary

In 1937, a teacher on the island of Maui in Hawaii challenged a group of children to learn to swim. Their families were poverty-stricken sugar plantation workers, and they faced virulent anti-Japanese sentiments because of their heritage. Their community had no pool, so these children, malnourished and barefoot, trained by swimming upstream in the dirty irrigation ditches that snaked down the mountains into the sugarcane fields.

Their teacher himself could barely tread water, but in spite of everything they had working against them, within the first year, they began outracing Olympic athletes twice their size. In the second year, they became international champs and made headlines worldwide.

The dawning of WWII and the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were a major setback, but they’d have one last chance for Olympic glory in 1948.

The Book Girls Say…

If you enjoy books about swimming, be sure to also check out our list of novels about swimmers.

Wheels of Courage book cover

Book Summary

This book tells the story of the soldiers, sailors, and marines who were paralyzed on the battlefields and in the POW camps of WWII. The returned home to a world that wasn’t used to dealing with their injuries and to doctors that saw little hope for them.

But many of the servicemen, some of them former athletes, refused to be written off. Determined to create a life without limits, they formed the first wheelchair basketball teams. Their British counterparts then joined them in creating the Paralympic Games.

This book draws upon the veterans’ own words, stories, and memories about this era.

Running the Rift book cover

Book Summary

This novel tells the story of a gifted Rwandan runner named Jean Patrick Nkuba. Born a Tutsi (one the the three main ethnic groups in Rwanda), everything about his life is complicated by the politics of his homeland. Take his running coach, for example – a Hutu (another of the ethnic groups) who was secretly training the very soldiers that would hunt down Tutsi families.

In spite of all the challenges of simply surviving, Jean Patric dreams of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track. He hopes that achieving this feat might help to deliver his people from violence. But when the killing begins, Jean Patrick is forced to flee, leaving behind the woman, the family, and the country he loves. Finding them again will be the race of his life.

The Book Girls Say…

The author has stated that this historical fiction novel is not based on a real person, but that he created the character of Jean Patrick Nkuba by combining characteristics of his friends, himself, and his imagination.

Just Add Water book cover

Book Summary

In this memoir, Katie Ledecky shares her journey from Bethesda, Maryland where she fell in love with the pool, to her world championships, seven gold Olympic medals, and the incredible record of winning more Olympic races than any other female swimmer.

She’s often asked what it takes to compete successfully at an elite level, and her book shows the endless work she put in, the support of her family, and the wisdom of her coaches along the way.

The Book Girls Say…

If you’re looking for a non-fiction read that meets our Books About Swimming prompt in the Summer Reading Challenge, this new release would be a great pick!

Path Lit by Lightning book cover

Book Summary

Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, excelled at every sport he played. At the Carlisle Indian School, he was praised as an All-American football player. But off the field, he dealt with the racist assimilationist philosophy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

Despite this, he went on to win gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, become the star of the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and play major league baseball.

His later life included trouble with alcohol, marriages, and money. This 2022 biography explores the entire life of this incredible athlete.

The Book Girls Say…

In this biography, you’ll read about Thorpe’s gold medals being taken away. Finally, on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s decathlon gold medal, the IOC announced that it would reinstate Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon.

This memoir is very detailed and comprehensive, so it’s a longer read (672 pages).

Books Featuring Summer Olympic Sports

While the following books don’t include specific Olympic references, each book features a sport you can watch during the Summer Olympics.

Canary Girls book cover

Book Summary

As British men left to fight in WWI, women stepped up to work in the arsenals, making weapons for the military. Thousands of former housewives, shop girls, cooks, and maids became “munitionettes” and worked grueling shifts with little protective gear.

April is 19 years old and was a housemaid before hearing about the higher wages she could earn at Thornshire Arsenal near London. Lucy is married to an Olympic gold medalist & star forward of the Tottenham Hotspur football team. She joins Thornshire to do her part in shortening the war. When her coworkers learn she is a footballer’s wife, they invite her to join the arsenal ladies’ football club, the Thornshire Canaries.

When the women begin having unexplained health problems, including yellowing skin, the boss’s wife, Helen, becomes their biggest advocate. Helen suspects the chemicals are to blame for the health issues and became a staunch advocate for the workers who became known as “canary girls.”

The Book Girls Say…

If you love stories based on what women were doing for the war effort and also enjoy sports, this is a great option based on the true story of the “canary girls” and the Munitionettes Cup.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

93% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

As a tennis star, Carrie Soto shattered every record and claimed twenty Grand Slam titles. She retired in 1988 at the top of her game, after decades of sacrifice. Now, in 1994, she’s just witnessed Nicki Chan take her record at the US Open.

At 37, Carrie decides to come back to tennis for one year in an attempt to regain her record. As she has been since she was only 2, she’ll be coached by her father, Javier. Her body doesn’t move as quickly now, but her brutal competitiveness is just as strong. She’s even willing to train with the man she almost let into her hardened heart years ago, Bowe.

While the book has a strong emphasis on tennis, it also deals heavily with Carrie’s relationships, especially the one with her father/coach.

The Book Girls Say…

If you read Malibu Rising, you might recognize the name Carrie Soto. She’s the woman that Nina’s husband left her for. So, as you might guess from her history as ‘the other woman,’ she isn’t the most likable character.

Sooley book cover

Book Summary

At the age of 17, Samuel Sooleymon, got the chance of a lifetime. He and his South Sudanese teammates took a trip to the United States to play in a basketball tournament. It was his first time away from home, his first time on an airplane, and a dream opportunity to be seen by scouts and college coaches.

During the tournament, a civil war breaks out back in South Sudan, and Samuel’s village has been attached. His father was killed, his sister is missing, and the rest of his family is in a refugee camp. Samuel is desperate to get home, but it’s not possible.

Despite his speed and vertical leap, his game needs a lot of work and the American coaches aren’t impressed. But given the circumstances, the coach of North Carolina Central offers him a scholarship. Samuel moves to Durham and joins the team, prepared to sit out his freshman season. He’s determined to improve, shooting baskets in an empty gym at dawn each morning. If he gets called off the bench, can success help him to save his family?

The Book Girls Say…

While this book isn’t about the Olympics, it does feature one of our favorite summer Olympic sports. Basketball fans will enjoy this book, but it’s more than just that – this is a human story that transcends sports and will appeal to readers regardless of their knowledge of the game.

Furia book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

94% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

In this Own Voices YA novel, Camila is an Argentinian teenager with a passion for soccer and the talent and skill to go far in the sport, but her parents don’t know anything about it. At home, Camila lives in the shadow of her rising soccer star brother and constantly strives to be a model daughter. She does her best to meet her mother’s expectations and avoid upsetting her abusive and short-tempered father.

When her team qualifies for a major South American soccer tournament, Camila dreams her talents will earn a scholarship to a North American university. But her parents wouldn’t knowingly allow a girl to play fútbol, and she can’t play in the tournament without their permission. Then, to complicate things, the boy Camila once loved (who has become an international soccer player in Italy) is back in town.

Camila will be forced to face her secrets as she tries to make her way in a world that doesn’t value her dreams and ambitions.

The Book Girls Say…

Despite being written for a younger audience, this novel has been enjoyed by many of our adult readers over the past few years who say they felt invested in the characters and learned a lot about the culture of Argentina.

This novel was a Goodreads Choice Award nominee for Best Young Adult Fiction in 2020.

Dust Bowl Girls book cover

Book Summary

This non-fiction tells the true story of a women’s basketball team that overcame all odds and brought something positive to a struggling community.

In the early 1930s, Sam Babb traveled from farm to farm near the tiny Oklahoma college where he coached. The growing Dust Bowl conditions were devastating farming families, but Coach Babb offered hope. 

At a time when women’s sports were largely considered unhealthy and unladylike, Coach Babb recruited young women and offered them a chance at a better life. He promised them a free college education in exchange for joining his basketball team. 

As the women discovered a passion for the game, the team began to win. And they just kept winning. Their improbable journey took them all the way to the national championship game.

The Book Girls Say…

Described as The Boys in the Boat meets A League of Their Own, this sports story paints a vivid picture of life during this time period.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy book cover

Book Summary

In the spring of 1971, after two decades of hostility, tensions eased a bit, and the balance of power was realigned between China and the United States. The progress was not achieved by politicians, though, but rather by ping-pong players. The media dubbed it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” but there’s much more to it than you might have heard reported in the news.

This non-fiction book takes a deep dive into the back story and the ways in which China manipulated the game of ping pong at the highest levels in order to focus attention where they wanted it (and where they didn’t). The book introduces an eclectic cast of real-life characters, from spies to hippies to ping-pong-obsessed military generals.

The Book Girls Say…

Readers say that this book is partially a history of the game of ping pong and part history of the East. Many say it reads more like a historical novel, while others describe it as a bit drier and felt it could have been told in a more interesting way.

Join the Summer Reading Challenge

Our free self-paced reading challenge will keep you reading engaging books all summer long. To make it easy and fun, we include highly-rated book recommendations for each of the six summer reading prompts.


Comments on: Books to Read Before the Summer Olympics

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One Comment

  1. I’ve read several lists on Olympics -related books and you have the best list, there are books here that I haven’t seen anywhere else that look really good. Thank you!