Every four years, Americans turn away briefly from our regular summer sporting obsessions—pennant races, NFL training camps, the PGA Championship, and NASCAR—and become experts on otherwise-ignored sports like gymnastics, swimming, track, and the modern pentathlon. Keeping up with water-cooler conversation requires some advance reading.
The modern games began in 1896 with 245 athletes and 43 events. The Beijing Olympics, which kick off Friday night, will feature more than 10,000 athletes competing in 302 events. Fittingly, the seventh edition of David Wallechinsky's Complete Book of the Olympics—keep this indispensable reference within reach of your armchair or keyboard—squeezes into its 1,200-plus pages an essay on "gigantism," or whether the Games have grown too large. Wallechinsky tirelessly chronicles the top finishers of every event in every sport since the modern games began. He devotes nearly 400 pages just to track and field, sorting out fact from fiction in the stories of British athlete Harold Abrahams, who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire,and Jesse Owens, who was indeed probably snubbed after his four-gold-medal performance in 1936, but by Franklin Roosevelt, not Adolf Hitler.
All eyes will be on swimmer Michael Phelps as he makes his second attempt to win eight gold medals. It's been 36 years since Mark Spitz pulled off the previously unimaginable feat of winning seven golds at a single Olympics. (Phelps won six golds in Athens; if you want to evaluate his chances this year, watch his dominance as he sets a world record in the 400 individual medley.) If you're too jaded to read Amazing Pace: The Story of Olympic Champion Michael Phelps From Sydney to Athens to Beijing, a slightly hyperbolic biography of the 23-year-old Phelps (sample line: "Michael Phelps manipulated the water like no man since Moses"), you might be better off with Mark Spitz: The Extraordinary Life of an Olympic Champion by Richard Foster, which touches not only on his swimming accomplishments, but also his sometimes difficult relationships with his father and coaches and the surreal experience of being a Jewish athlete competing at Munich, the Olympics marked by the massacre of Israeli athletes competing there. Phelps is not the only American looking to make history in the pool in Beijing. At age 41, Dara Torres is competing in her fifth Olympics. Maybe, just maybe, she was inspired by Off the Deep End, W. Hodding Carter's account of his attempt to make the Olympics as a cure for a midlife crisis.
Torres first swam in the Olympics in 1984. Back then, ABC made waves by airing an unprecedented 180 hours of coverage. This time, the network NBC 3,600 hours of coverage on its various properties, including 2,200 hours of live streaming video coverage online on NBCOlympics.com. Finally! The online video should stave off a repeat of the Sydney Games of 2000, when fans had to avoid the Internet if they didn't want to learn the results before they had a chance to see the footage. (Fans weary of NBC's pro-American bent or emphasis on treacly profiles will appreciate Slate staffer June Thomas' plans to head to Montreal to watch the Olympics on CBC. Check out her Bloggingheads.tv Olympic preview with Slate sports editor Josh Levin.) All those live results mean you can track medal counts and read in-depth reporting in real time at ESPN.com and SI.com. Good Olympic blogs include Philip Hersh's Globetrotting at the Chicago Tribune, where he covers Olympic sports and the IOC year-round; Rings, which gets a gold medal in the all-around, by the staff of the New York Times; and Blogging Beijng, where Daniel Beekman at the Seattle Times provides the perspective of an American living in China.
There's no telling what happens to NBC's carefully arranged schedule if something goes awry. And what could go wrong? Well, just about everything. A longtime concern has been Beijing's air quality, and smog persists a week before the opening ceremony. Watch ESPN's Outside the Lines report on how Beijing might control the smog and how U.S. athletes will be prepared.
The IOC's decision to hand the 2008 Olympics to China, a nation with a totalitarian Communist government but a burgeoning economy, was controversial. Unsurprisingly, activists have used the occasion to protest China's involvement with Sudan, and pro-Tibet demonstrators disrupted the torch relay. Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New Chinaexamines the efforts of the Chinese government to cast itself as a world leader amid the cacophony of protests. And China: Fragile Superpower looks at how China's nationalism is a threat to its tenuous stability. To glimpse life in Beijing leading up to and during the Olympics, check out the Wall Street Journal's China Journal, the Beijinger, and China Digital Times. For all the heat that China is taking, though, this revealing article in the New York Times explains how Peter Ueberroth, head of the 1984 Olympic organizing committee and currently chairman of the USOC, believes that China saved the 1984 Olympics by defying the Soviet Union's call for Communist nations to boycott the Games. As the Times writes: "Now, no matter what political issues arise—and with China there are many: human rights, Tibet, its relationship with the government of Sudan—large-scale boycotts are no longer part of the discussion."