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Required reading: the London 2012 Olympic Games

Our pick of must-read books to get to know the history of the Games.

London 2012

The London 2012 Olympic Games will begin on Friday with a spectacular opening ceremony - such, at least, is the promise - created by the British director Danny Boyle.

With the city currently enduring its wettest summer in living memory, observers have expressed fears that track and field highlights may be washed away by London's rain. But Olympic spirit, surely, is in the eye of the beholder, and you can buttress yours with a selection of the best reading.

The most dedicated armchair Olympians should start with The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC by David Miller (Mainstream Publishing, Dh230). Here they'll learn how the French aristocrat and historian Pierre de Coubertin set about reviving the ancient Olympic movement, staging the first modern Games in Athens in 1896.

In so doing, Coubertin hoped to recapture what he believed was a golden age for mankind: that of ancient Athens. Athletes in the ancient Games famously competed naked, as you'll learn in Nigel Spivey's The Ancient Olympics: War Minus the Shooting (OUP, Dh86), which portrays a Games riven by bloodshed and skulduggery. It's not clear if Coubertin knew about all that.

In the 20th century, meanwhile, the Olympics gave us some era-defining moments. To remember one, go to Silent Gesture (Temple University Press, Dh69) by the US track athlete Tommie Smith. Smith, a 200-metre gold medallist, was one of the two black American athletes who raised his hand in a black power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Games. The gesture sent shock waves around the world - and changed his life forever. Meanwhile, Munich 1972 (Rowman & Littlefield, Dh109) by David Clay Large tells the story of the infamous murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games.

This summer, Meet Wenlock and Mandeville by Barry Timms (Carlton, Dh34) is a cartoon introduction to London's perplexing, gender-indeterminate, cycloptic mascots. There's no prize for guessing what they're supposed to be. But there should be.

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