Book (Excerpts)

Want to know what the Olympic entries in A to Z are like? They’re breezy, they’re educational, and they’re chock full o’ fun facts.

For example, here’s an excerpt from “S is for Shuttlecock”

The English Sport that Probably Came from Asia

If your history of badminton contains only one sentence, it probably goes something like: Badminton was invented in 1873 when the duke of Beaufort introduced the game to guests at his country estate in Badminton. Credit is always given to the wealthy and prominent. Haven’t you always found it hard to believe that the Fourth Earl of Sandwich was really the first person who thought to put meat between pieces of bread? Sandwiches were popularized, not invented, by the Earl of Sandwich.1  Badminton was not really invented by the dude from Badminton. These are examples of successful branding.

The game of battledore and shuttlecock is more than 2000 years old. Whether it started in China, India, Egypt, or Greece, all claimants to the game’s origination, many cultures have been known to play games that involved whacking a thing that looked like a bird up in the air.

The badminton racket has a longer arm than a tennis racket, while the shuttlecock is formed from a bit of cork stuck with feathers. Players use a racket to hit a leather-covered cork-tipped shuttle that is topped by 16 goose feathers taken from the same goose, usually from the left wing, which is considered stronger.

Yes, you read that part about the left wing correctly. The feathers on a professional shuttlecock are all from the same wing, carefully overlapped to allow for maximum spin. That shuttle can travel up to 200 miles an hour, which outstrips the speeds of all other racket sports.

The left wing isn’t necessarily used because it’s stronger, but because overlapping from the left allows the shuttle to spin clockwise.79 It’s not that clockwise is better, but that now is what elite players expect. If you switched now to right-wing feathers, the shuttle would spin in the opposite direction to what a player had practiced. If there were a mix of left and right feathers? Up in the tree.

1 The Earl of the Sandwich Islands told his cook to come up with a method that let him eat with one hand free when he was playing cards. Other cultures had been placing meat on trenchers (bread in lieu of plates), within flatbreads, tortillas, pitas, or matzah for thousands of years, so he didn’t exactly “invent” the sandwich.


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Outside the Rio Spotlight is more in-depth, painting a dozen detailed portraits of American winners, both explaining the history and rules of their sports, and the competitions in Rio, start to finish. Here are two examples:


“Shot Diva Extraordinaire” tells the story of Michelle Carter and her journey through the shot put tournament, on her way to becoming the first woman to earn a gold medal in the shot put for the U.S.

On a rainy summer evening in July 2016, 31-year-old Carter is waiting for the signal to take her last throw at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The shot put circle is slick with rainwater, and droplets are pattering softly, visibly in the puddles. Umbrellas can be seen in the stands throughout Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, where track and field starts and ends in the United States. Everyone is wearing a hat to fend off the rain except Carter, who frowns a little, looking at the wet asphalt as she steps carefully into the circle.

As she counts off her steps and adopts her throwing form—right hand steadying the shot against her neck and left hand straight out—the massive arms and strong legs are conspicuous. So, too, is the careful, practiced technique as she bends, taps her toe twice, then twists a half rotation and heaves, a high, arcing shot of 19.59 meters to win the competition. Also conspicuous are the sculpted gold nails which cradle the leaden ball against her dark skin, as are thick long eyelashes and maroon lipstick. Even more striking are the reddish bursts of curled hair, pulled back in a tube by an intricately folded black headband, crowned with an ornate design. Carter’s look is more than eye-catching; it is fascinating, mesmerizing, and full-on glamorous. Her throw was near a previous Olympic record.


“First Gold in a Century” tells the story of Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. who became the first American man to win the 1500 meter race since 1908.

August 7, 2012

Finals, Men’s 1500 m

For the London Olympic men’s 1500, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria arrived with a plan to outfox the Kenyans. In the finals, the mix included three Kenyans, two former Kenyans, and three [other] single African runners from Morocco, Ethiopia, and Algeria. One of the favorites is Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, gold medalist from the prior Games in Beijing. Makhloufi is the other big name.

Besides those eight from Africa are another four. These are cagey Nick Willis of New Zealand, silver medalist from Beijing; Norway’s Henrik Ingebritsen; and two Americans, Lionel Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. … As the race starts, Centrowitz moves to the front carefully. A Kenyan and the Bahrainian join him. During the second lap, the American stays tucked in near the front although no longer leading. Classical jockeying takes place at end of the third lap, with most of the runners passing the leaders and moving ahead only to be passed by someone else.

When the bell sounds for the final lap, there are five runners nearly side by side as they elbow each other for the inside pole position moving into the turn. Makhloufi opens up his kick very early on the back straightaway, surprising Kiprop and the other favorites. He bursts in front… The rest of the pack still pauses before accelerating fully, thinking maybe that Makhloufi has gone too soon.

Abdalaati Iguider from Morocco, red-shirted like the Americans, moves forward on the last curve. Centrowitz is close behind him, perhaps following what appears like a friendly red shirt. Makhloufi’s timing has been impeccable because he has a strong lead rounding the turn. He kicked early and is still accelerating. Green-shirted Gebremedhin passes red-shirted Kenyan Kiplagat and so does Iguider. Centrowitz is suddenly seeing a lot of backs and is in a pack full of red shirts. He also passes Kiplagat. The Kenyans can’t seem to find their accelerators today. (They finish seventh, 11th, and 12th). Centrowitz also passes Gebremedhin. The crowd is roaring because Makhloufi is going to win by several strides and is already raising his arms as if to accept accolades. Centrowitz’s legs are churning but even as he passes people, he seems to be decelerating.

Suddenly, the other American, Manzano, comes out of nowhere, blazing like it’s a 100-meter sprint. He was mid-pack around the curve but has waited until the last 100 meters to press his turbo button. He can’t catch Makhloufi, but he blows by Centrowitz, Gebremedhin, and Iguider. Centrowitz tries to follow on his shoulder, but he and Iguider are running stride for stride. He inches up on Iguider.

He’s timed it too late, though. There are three red shirts in the middle of the straightaway, Manzano, Iguider and Centrowitz. As Manzano’s legs spin at the finish, Centrowitz looks left—either to see if that’s the finish or to see if he’s beaten Iguider. The other man in red was starting to slow down.

It’s hard to say whether the look was a good idea or a bad idea. Looking left takes your attention away from the finish. It might take a hundredth of a second off your time. Coaches say never look, always lean forward. But Centrowitz can’t seem to help it; he looks. He loses to Iguider by 4/100 of a second.

He has finished worst. He has just come in fourth.

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