‘Three Kings’ by Todd Balf sheds light on barrier-breaking Olympic swimmers

In time for the centennial celebration of the 1924 Paris Olympics, best-selling author Todd Balf’s new book, Three Kings: Race, Class, and the Barrier-Breaking Rivals Who Launched the Modern Olympic Age, has hit the shelves. 

This compelling narrative, a statement says, dives into the extraordinary lives of three pioneering swimmers: Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller and Katsuo Takaishi, whose rivalry and triumphs in the 100-meter race at the 1924 Olympics reshaped the world of competitive swimming.

Balf’s Three Kings chronicles how Kahanamoku, Weissmuller, and Takaishi broke racial and class barriers in a sport dominated by privileged, predominantly white athletes of their era. These athletes didn’t just swim; they represented the hopes and dreams of their respective nations, challenging the social norms and prejudices of the 1920s.

The book has already garnered praise from notable authors and historians. Hampton Sides, celebrated author of The Wide Wide Sea and Blood and Thunder, hailed it as a “rollicking tale” that brings to life the intense competition and cultural significance of vintage swim racing. Jonathan Eig, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of King: A Life, commended it for its deep research and thrilling narrative.

Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim and American Chinatown, praised the book for its complex and beautifully researched history, noting how it provides character and heart to the athletes’ stories. Daniel Coyle, known for The Talent Code and The Culture Code, described Three Kings as a deeply immersive and wildly inspiring book that goes far beyond sport.

Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian legend, is widely regarded as the father of modern surfing and Hawaii’s first superstar. He not only won Olympic medals but also introduced the world to the art of surfing, significantly influencing global beach culture. Kahanamoku’s success was a point of pride for Hawaii, which was then a US territory striving for recognition and respect.

Weissmuller, a brash phenom from Chicago, was a poor immigrant who rose to fame not only for his swimming prowess but also for his later Hollywood career as the original Tarzan. Weissmuller’s journey from humble beginnings to becoming an Olympic champion and movie star embodies the quintessential American dream, inspiring countless others in his wake.

Takaishi, the rising Japanese star, helped put Japan on the global sports map. His participation and success in the 1924 Olympics were monumental for Japan, a country eager to establish itself on the international stage. Takaishi’s achievements inspired a generation of Japanese swimmers, eventually making Japan a powerhouse in the sport.

The 1924 Paris Olympics were a turning point in sports history. For the first time, athletes of colour like Kahanamoku and Takaishi competed on equal footing with their white counterparts. Their participation and victories challenged the eugenics movement, which sought to prove the supposed superiority of certain races, and laid the groundwork for a more inclusive future in sports.

The showdown between Kahanamoku, Weissmuller and Takaishi was one of the most thrilling races in Olympic history. It drew the fervent interest of princes and presidents, sports scientists and bookies, movie stars and laborers. This race was more than just a competition; it was a symbolic struggle against the racial and social barriers of the time.

Three Kings is more than a sports book; it’s a social history that underscores the transformative power of sports in breaking down racial and social barriers. As the world looks back on the legacy of these athletes, Balf’s narrative serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how sports continue to be a catalyst for social change.

The careers and rivalries of Kahanamoku, Weissmuller, and Takaishi unfolded during an epochal period not only for sports but also for global society. The 1920s were transformative, marking a time when athletes of color were given a fair, though still not equal, chance to compete. This era laid the foundations for our modern conception of athleticism and competition, particularly within the Olympic Games.

The book, co-published by Everand Originals and Blackstone Publishing, is available in ebook, audiobook and hardcover formats. Narrated by award-winning actor Edoardo Ballerini, the audiobook promises to be as captivating as the story itself.

For more information, visit www.threekingsthebook.com.

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