What to Read and Watch to Get Ready for the Olympics
Most of the recent news about the forthcoming Summer Olympics has been bleak, from ongoing concerns about COVID safety to the U.S. team’s decision not to include track star Sha’Carri Richardson after she used marijuana while mourning the very recent death of her mother. But there remains the promise of watching athletes do some pretty amazing things that none of us mere mortals could imagine. And this year, we’ll get to see three new adventurous sports on the international stage: climbing, surfing, and skateboarding. Whether you’ve never really watched people do these activities or you’re a lifelong fan, there’s a good chance you have some questions about what they’ll look like in their Olympic form. To up the awe factor as we get ready to cheer on new athletes, we asked some of our favorite writers what books, movies, and other media they’d recommend to better understand these disciplines — and to get a sense of how the format of the competitions in Tokyo will differ from the outdoor sports we already know. As climbing writer John Burgman puts it, “I think the great thing about these three new sports is that their Olympic versions are so far removed from their original formulations that fans can choose their own starting points for understanding the history and the nuances.” Here are a few places to start your own deep dive.
Our recommendation: We love everything Bonnie Tsui writes about water sports. In her personal essays and reporting on surfing, she highlights both the intangible things that make the sport special and some athletes’ increasing obsession with using data to maximize performance. She recently wrote in Popular Science about how that shift might influence Olympic surfers this year. The piece provides helpful context about just how much goes into training for a sport that will be judged on criteria like power, flow, and innovation — qualities that evoke effortlessness more than calculation. And Tsui even has younger fans covered with Sarah and the Big Wave, her children’s book about big-wave surf pioneer Sarah Gerhardt.
Tsui’s recommendations: “I think even those who are not very familiar with surfing have a sense of what powerhouse athleticism on a wave looks like, and this clip of a 2019 final between Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons shows what that can look like in competition. But there’s also the subtle elegance and style that isnt necessarily displayed in competition surf: this clip of Gilmore surfing Malibu is a real favorite of mine, and it showcases the fluidity and flow that make her such a joy to watch.
“If you want to learn more about the deep history and culture of surfing, a dip into Matt Warshaw’s impressive Encyclopedia of Surfing project is a must. As with most things, though, the picture of the surf community is incomplete. I love the work that the Textured Waves surf collective is doing to diversify how surfing is portrayed in the media.”
Our recommendation: If you want to understand competitive climbing, let alone the odd combination of disciplines Olympic athletes must master to have a chance at a medal, there aren’t a ton of options short of watching clips of competitions on YouTube (they are very fun!). Seeing this lack, John Burgman wrote the book on Olympic climbing. High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Competition Climbing was five years in the making when it came out last year, just in time for the main event. Burgman, a regular contributor to Climbing magazine, details the contrast between the sport’s increasing professionalization and its dirtbag culture — which, of course, are more in tension than ever heading to the Olympics. The book really does justice to describing the athleticism you’ll see in Tokyo, and gives you a sense of just how much history and technical innovation have led up to this moment. And Burgman’s Climbing article, “The Idiot’s Guide to Olympic Climbing,” gives (surprise!) an accessible overview of how the competition will work.
Burgman’s recommendations: “Climbing Free is the autobiography of Lynn Hill, the first superstar American competition climber. She was participating in climbing’s World Cup circuit in its earliest days (the late 1980s and early 1990s), and anyone who is really interested in climbing at the Olympics should definitely know her story. Robyn Erbesfield is unquestionably one of the greatest American competition climbers of all time; she’s also the mother of Olympian climber Brooke Raboutou, and the longtime coach of another American Olympian climber, Colin Duffy. Sport Climb with Robyn Erbesfield is worth checking out for its introduction, in which Robyn gives an overview of her climbing career.
“In terms of hype clips, I can never get enough of watching Canadian Alannah Yip earn her Olympic berth. The crowd went wild, the commentators teared up, Alannah herself teared up. It was an epic moment. To better understand the nuances of the discipline, I’d recommend checking out this breakdown of the recent speed climbing world record from the International Federation of Sport Climbing. And since the Olympics are all about the athletes’ journeys, I’d recommend this well-produced two-part video about the life of Olympian Brooke Raboutou — ‘L’héritage’ and ‘L’ascension.’ Beyond that, there’s a great content creator on YouTube named Albert Ok who has released some really good profile pieces on some of the Olympians. Consider this video he made about Olympian Nathaniel Coleman.”
Our recommendation: Kyle Beachy does not mince words when he addresses how he feels about skateboarding at the Olympics in his new book, The Most Fun Thing: “The commentators will tell you origin stories and explain things… To borrow Annie Dillard’s voice for a moment, these relate to skateboarding but only ‘as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.’” Understandable that Beachy, a lifelong skateboarder, simply wants us all to experience the joy of actually doing it. In that interest, his memoir-slash-essay collection is a heady, reference-heavy immersion in the culture of the sport and how it touches on nearly every aspect of his life, as well as an excellent glimpse into an obsession that transcends the Olympic podium. Beachy also co-hosts the skateboarding podcast Vent City, and many of his other essays and videos give the activity an equally literary but laid-back treatment.
Beachy’s recommendations: “Iain Borden’s groundbreaking book, Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body, gets at just what’s so theoretically rich about the skateboarding act. But in the 2016 video from Polar Skateboards and Pontus Alv, “I Like it Here Inside My Mind. Don’t Wake Me This Time,” you find everything that the Olympics exclude: artistry, expression, community, weirdness, and the gradient of human joys in which victory has no role.
“If it’s mythology and origin stories that you want, 2001’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys does a real good job of establishing the figures behind the rise of California skateboarding. Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap is surely the best treatment of skateboarding and American masculinity ever produced. But in terms of introducing the culture and history of skateboarding, this year’s film All the Streets are Silent unpacks the vital convergence between New York skateboarding and hip hop culture, drawing a clear, convincing line between the early nineties and today’s fashion, music, and sneaker cultures. The exceptional and wonderful organization Skate Like a Girl has spent the last few years producing what to my eyes are some of the best explainers and how-to videos for new skaters. A lot of the people making ‘how to kickflip’ vids are really building a brand, fishing for clicks, practicing the standard hideousnesses of life online. Skate Like a Girl is the opposite of that — generous teachers building an inclusive, safe community through shared expertise.”