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Medal-Worthy Weird

Amazon Book Review: Stay HungryEvery four years, the Summer Olympics bring the world together to watch world-class athletes chase their dreams of glory. While the glamour sports might get all of the attention--Dream Team cagers, preternaturally fast sprinters and swimmers, etc.--a huge part of the charm is generated outside of prime-time and the magnificent, soon-to-be-obsolete stadiums, where the competitors in the lesser-known pursuits enjoy their quadrennial moments of triumph, or at least recognition: the race-walkers, hammer-throwers, and canoe slalomers.

So if your passion for obscure obsessions has been stirred, this list of sports books (some tenuously defined) and their movie counterparts (some tenuously adapted) should hold you over, at least until the Winter games come around to make us all skeleton fans again. 

A longer version of this list first appeared as "13 best sports-themed books-turned-movies to get you pumped for the Summer Olympics" at

Stay-HungryStay Hungry by Charles Gaines/Stay Hungry

If you love novels about the oily subculture of competitive bodybuilding in the early 70s, this is your novel. Maybe your only novel. The 1976 film starred Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, and a young, veiny Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his earliest roles.


Bullfighter"The Maui Surfer Girls" (included in the collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup) by Susan Orlean/Blue Crush

Blue Crush--the unexpectedly compelling film adapted from Susan Orlean's 2002 article in Outside magazine—pits a small community of Maui surfer girls against the real-world thrills and spills of the North Shore's infamous board-eating waves, as well as the predictable caveman resistance offered by the male-dominated surf culture. The addition of one or two handsome, sympathetic love interests offsets this somewhat.

FeverFever Pitch: A Fan's Life by Nick Hornby/Fever Pitch

Before Hornby became a voice for man-children struggling with the perils of youth and young-adulthood with his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, he penned this autobiographical, obsessive paean to English soccer and the pain of annual failure. When he adapted it for the screen, it morphed into a rom-com starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon as a pair of star-crossed lovers who share a passion for baseball, the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, and the pain of annual failure.

FightFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk/Fight Club

Back in 1996, when Palahniuk published his tale of frustrated, violent young men putting their bare fists to each other's faces in dank basements and parking lots, he might not have foreseen the rise of Ultimate Fighting Championship, where frustrated, violent men--and women--put fists to faces in front of millions of rabid TV viewers. He might have been horrified, and for Chuck Palahniuk, that's saying something. (2016's Fight Club 2 picks up the story as a graphic novel.)

BloodBlood and Sand (Sangre y arena) by Vincente Blasco Ibáñez/Blood and Sand

Ibáñez's tale of a young man's rise from poverty to the apex of fame as Madrid matador has everything you want in a novel: drama, romance, hubris, and tragedy--and maybe one thing you don't: bullfighting. This 1908 book has endured, serving as the inspiration for no less than four films, beginning in 1916 under the author's own direction, with subsequent versions featuring Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, and Sharon Stone.

CavaliersLes cavaliers (The Horsemen) by Joseph Kessell/The Horsemen

Buzkashi: Before the Taliban, this pastime--featuring horsemen vying to stuff a goat carcass into a goal--was the national sport of Afghanistan. Not a fan? Read Kessel's 1967 novel for its complex human relationships and its rich, evocative portrayal of the country before it became a Cold War battleground. Watch the 1971 movie for its star (Omar Sharif), its director (John Frankenheimer), and its screenwriter (Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun).

WhipItWhip It by Shauna Cross/Whip It

Here's Drew Barrymore again, this time as the director of Whip It, a film based on Shauna Cross's book of the same title. Ellen Page stars as a small-town beauty queen who trades tiara and roses for a helmet, mayhem, and the opportunity to swap elbows with Kristin Wiig and Juliet Lewis in the violent, inscrutable world of roller derby.

HorsesThey Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy/They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

In the 1930s, long before ballroom dancing became an Olympic event under the cover of DanceSport, couples competed and collapsed against each other in epic dancing marathons, vying for the prize of Depression-era cash. McCoy's novel captures their often dark and desperate subterfuge, while Sydney Pollack's 1969 film earned Academy Awards for three of its stars, including Jane Fonda.  

MillionMillion Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole/Million Dollar Baby

Most people walking unawares into Clint Eastwood's 2004 film—based on this collection of boxing stories by legendary corner man Jerry Boyd, a.k.a. F.X. Toole—thought they were about to see an inspirational story about an underdog female fighter. What they got was one of the sharpest, most shocking plot turns since The Crying Game.

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