Monmouth College Faculty, Staff Offer Titles that Make Olympics, an American Pastime More Enjoyable

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By Barry McNamara
Monmouth College Office of Communications and Marketing

In preparation for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, which will be held July 26-Aug. 11 in Paris, I asked several Monmouth College employees for help in crafting a reading list that can enhance watching the summer games.

What follows is a list of some of their recommended Olympic-themed books, as well as a few titles that pay tribute to America’s boys of summer.

‘The Ancient Olympic Games’

“Those who are wondering about the ancient Olympics and how they compared to the modern ones can check out Judith Swaddling’s The Ancient Olympic Games,” said classics professor Bob Simmons. “This book, which is full of images, is a concise, readable account of a range of aspects of how the ancient Olympics were carried out. I use it in my ‘Sports in Greece and Rome’ class and will use it in my National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute this month.”

Titled “The Ancient Olympics and Daily Life in Ancient Olympia: A Hands-On History,” that summer institute for K-12 educators will be held July 7-20 on Monmouth’s campus. More than two dozen teachers from around the nation are expected to attend.

“My other related suggestion is not a book, but a museum exhibit,” said Simmons. “Paris is home to several of the world’s great art museums, and the greatest of those museums, the Louvre, is hosting an exhibit in advance of the Games called ‘Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy.'”

The exhibit will include images and other material records from the ancient Olympics to the modern that highlight significant steps that made the ancient Olympics what they were and what made the modern Olympics what they are.

“Those unable to catch a flight over to Paris in person this summer might check out some features of the exhibit online,” said Simmons.

During the course of his stellar 38-year career as the Fighting Scots track and field head coach, Director of Athletics Roger Haynes read scores of books on his sport and about training methods. He offered a pair of recommendations – “one for track geeks and one for any American in an Olympic year.”

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb chronicles the efforts of Englishman Roger Bannister, American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy to become the first man to run a mile under four minutes and their subsequent head-to-head competition.

The New York Times review calls it an “enthralling book” and says Bascomb “expertly winds up the tension of the three men’s many failed attempts to get closer to the magic mark, before Bannister wrote himself into legend first on a windy day at the Oxford University track.”

Haynes’ other recommendation is Jesse Owens: An American Life, a biography of the star of the 1936 Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin under the eyes of Adolph Hitler.

Born the 10th child of a poor Southern sharecropper and barely able to read or write, Owens used his astonishing drive and athletic ability to win an unprecedented four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. He became an international superstar overnight and exploded Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy in the process.

Three more titles

Hewes Library director Sarah Henderson recommended Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews by Mavis Gallant. The book provides literary criticism and essays on the expatriate experience in Paris, including “The Events in May,” which inspired Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch.

For his final recommendation, Simmons took off his classics professor hat and replaced it with a baseball cap.

“Unrelated to the Olympics, but related to sports, to our home state, and to small towns, Chris Ballard’s One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season is a compelling account of the baseball team in tiny Macon, Illinois,” said Simmons. “In 1971, Macon was the runner-up for the all-class state title, knocking off several giant schools along the way. One of the players on that team was Brian Snitker, now the World Series-winning manager of the Atlanta Braves.”

Related to that baseball recommendation is a suggested title by the author of this article about a book that (slipping into first-person here) helped me become a writer. The book I’ve read the most in my lifetime is Pennant Race by Jim Brosnan, a member of the 1961 Cincinnati Reds.

Brosnan – who, interestingly, also pitched for the trio of local favorites, the Cubs, Cardinals and White Sox – kept a daily journal about the season, which improbably saw his Reds challenge for the National League pennant. Primarily a spot starter/long reliever, Brosnan also wrote about the 1959 season in his book, The Long Season. But it’s Pennant Race that I’ve kept coming back to over the years, and I’m sure it helped shape my writing which, for many years, focused more on sports than news. I even sent Brosnan a note telling him that, just a few years before he passed away in 2014.

A decade ago, a reviewer wrote: “Brosnan wrote the first honest portrayal of the life of a ballplayer. … Fifty years on, his books remain the gold standard for baseball memoirs.”

Barry McNamara is associate director of communications and marketing at Monmouth College.

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