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‘Total Olympics’ goes for the gold

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I love the Olympics.

There’s something so captivating about watching someone at the peak of their performance do what it is that they do best. This notion of being recognized as the literal best in the world at something – fascinating.

And that’s what the Olympics do. They celebrate the glory of athletic achievement (as well as nationalistic jingoism and bureaucratic graft, but still).

There’s more to the Olympics than the winners, however. For every famous gold medalist’s face gracing a Wheaties box, there are scores of stories of those who were just as excellent, yet now linter in obscurity. Not to mention those who, for whatever reason, never quite reached the same iconic pinnacle. And just like anything that has been around for more than a century (or centuries, if you start counting from its Greek origins), a lot has changed – both good and bad.

These are the sorts of stories that you’ll find in Jeremy Fuchs’s new book “Total Olympics: Every Obscure, Hilarious, Dramatic and Inspiring Tale Worth Knowing” (Workman Publishing, $22.95). Yes, you’ll get stories of the giants of various eras – Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps – but you’ll also be reminded of (or learn for the first time) names of exceptional athletes with less longstanding cultural resonance.

In addition, Fuchs has brought forward numerous tales of Olympic history, digging into some of the behind-the-scenes chicanery that came with hosting the event and revisiting some of the wild and weird competitions that were once part of the proceedings.

It’s a compact and fun trip through the history of the Games, a catch-all of trivia, biographical sketches and fascinating forgotten moments. Anyone with affection for the Olympics will find plenty to enjoy in these pages.

“Total Olympics” is broken into six chapters, each with its own focus. First up is “Forgotten History,” where we look back at aspects of past Games that have been largely lost to time. Stuff like the pure hustle that led to Squaw Valley securing the bid for the 1960 Games, a house of cards scheme that somehow held together long enough to prove successful. The so-called “Austerity Games” – the 1948 London Olympics, the first since the end of World War II. The legendary 1956 water polo match – dubbed “Blood in the Water” – between Hungary and the Soviet Union just as the latter country was attempting to put down the former.

Chapter three is “Wild and Strange,” wherein we get a look at some of the oddest happenings in the history of the Olympics. We meet Shizo Kanikuri, a Japanese marathoner who began his race in 1912 … and finished in in 1967. We learn that George Patton – as in General Patton – was an Olympic athlete who competed in the pentathlon. The Swedish pentathlete who was the first to be disqualified for drinking. The Cold War love story between a hammer thrower from Boston and a Czechoslovakian discus thrower. The list goes on.

“Discontinued Sports” is a hoot, offering looks at some of the sports that were once a part of the illustrious annals of Olympic history, but are no longer. You probably are aware of some – tug of war is one that everyone is delighted to learn was once part of the Games – but there are others that you’ve never even considered. The rope climb. Plunging for distance. The obstacle swim. Dueling and live pigeon shooting. Solo synchronized swimming. Incongruous things like firefighting and auto racing. And, in perhaps my favorite of them all, art – the Pentathlon of the Muses, with medals awarded for painting, sculpture, music, architecture and literature, was part of every Games from 1912 to 1948.

Other chapters like “Legends,” “Firsts” and “Forgotten Heroes” also bring together a vast array of trivial tidbits.

“Total Olympics” is absolutely jammed with sporting history. The risk one runs with trying to cover such a broad spectrum is that the items blur together, but Fuchs has constructed the book in such a way as to balance our engagement, eschewing chronology for a more holistic approach. And it works – it sometimes seems as if there is a surprise on every page.

These are the stories that make the Olympics special. They are the stories that give us the perspective on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat alike, all in the context of the world’s greatest sporting event. While the Games may not carry the luster they once did, books like this one remind us of why we love the Olympic Games – and why we hopefully anticipate the rescheduled Tokyo Games coming our way in just a couple of months.

“Total Olympics” is a delightful read, packed with quick hits and covering every bit of weirdness and obscura you could hope to find. Olympics fans will likely find some of these tales to be familiar ones, but even the most hardcore Games nerd will almost certainly find themselves baffled and delighted by some of the items that Fuchs has assembled here.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 May 2021 11:05


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