Cheerleaders are usually portrayed as air-headed and dumb, the sport is often the butt of jokes and in this age of equal rights, it’s considered anit-feminist to be part of a squad. The truth, of course, is very different.

It wasn’t that long ago (before Title IX in the 70s) that cheerleading was often the only organized sport available to high school and college women. Today, competitive cheerleading (not the silly dance steps performed by squads at professional football and basketball games) is a scholarship sport at hundreds of colleges, with National Championships held each year in April that are shown on ESPN. Like any college sport, it requires rigorous practices, learning specific skills, staying in excellent physical condition and game day situations. It is also plagued by the same problems – illegal drug use, often serious injuries and eating disorders.

Just in time for opening of college football. Cheer! by Kate Torgovnick takes you through a typical season with the squads from Stephen F Austin, Southern University and the University of Memphis. You’ll go behind the scenes, experience the hard times and the fun times and come to love the people of each squad. Well-researched and detailed, Cheer! will give you new insight into – and respect for – the world of cheerleading.

Led by a salty and unconventional coach, a team from the US Navy dared to go to the 1920 Olympics (held in Antwerp, Belgium) and challenge the privleged and long-dominant British at their own sport of rowing.

Set in the devastating aftermath of World War I, The Wonder Crew by Susan Saint Sing tells the story of Coach Richard Glendon and his ragtag team of Navy midshipmen using innovative training methods and a new style of rowing that revolutionized the sport. One by one they defeated the Ivy League schools, then turned their sights on the gold medal at the Olympic games.

Follow along this exciting journey from the humble beginnings of the crew and coach, through various obstacles overcome, the courage and commitment required and the tests endured, to the final triumph of this All-American team of underdogs.

Setting the personal stories of the 1960 Olympics in the context of world events and issues, Rome 1960 by David Maraniss adds credence to the thought that the Olympics are a reflection of their time. 1960 saw, among other things, some of the first instances of illegal performance enhancing drugs, political unrest in the decision to make China enter the games under the name of Taiwan and tensions spilling over from the Cold War, the spotlight shining on the social injustices still felt by black Americans even as they became heroes to the rest of the world, and the practice of strict amateruism coming under scrutiny.

This was also the Olympics of Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), Wilma Rudolph (who overcame childhood polio to win gold) and Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila who won gold while running barefoot.

The Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics will be held tonight; what insights into the state of our world will we see from China?