There is no dearth of ‘Olympic Fiction’. One that comes to mind immediately is the Alex series of young adult novels, and there are a couple of more novels released in July 2012, to coincide with the London event. Swimming, gymnastics and running seem to be the popular Olympian events in fiction but Chris Cleave takes on a much-less discussed event here. Cycling, with relentless and brutal training schedules and desperate and dangerous racing moments, is the theme of Gold.
The author’s note at the end is signed in 2011, it’s obvious that the book release has been held back to coincide with the zeitgeist moment. The novel is placed mainly in the run-up period to the London Olympics, April 2012 to be exact, revealed by date jottings as chapter titles. The action is built around the gold medal dreams and endeavours of three contemporaries, two women and a man, for whom the London event is their swan song. Intertwined with these three lives are those of a child suffering from leukaemia and finding escape routes in fantasy, and an older, almost-Olympic-medallist, who is coach to the two women aspirants; he has a hard time denying to himself that he favours one of them. The women protagonists are best friends in life and arch rivals on the track and vying for the same things, even the same man. All of them live in and dream and grieve about precious moments that are split-seconds long, and it’s this tale that Cleave tells us in 366 pages.
Cleave writes like an insider, his research is immaculate. The world of speed cycling, the daily life of the champions who keep running to remain where they are, their limits of endurances both physical and emotional, all come out most convincingly in the narration. The same goes for tracing the sequences of a meandering mind of a child in poor health. The day of a leukemia patient is tough and its portrait in this piece of fiction very credible.
And it is the London Olympics that remains the motif throughout the novel. One protagonist gives up the Olympic dream to be a Mom, another gives up motherhood for an Olympic dream. The third trains for Olympics without any ostensible rivals, and the coach on the scene is a guy who lost a lifelong Olympic tag by the fraction of a second. The child in the story is very ill but even her days are built around the training schedules of her medal aspirant parents. There is an interesting twist in the tale that again arrives with an Olympian tag. London 2012 is all that the reader is asked to think about.
Cleave’s pen endeavours to reveal sportspersons as real people who have real families and real feelings rather than robots on the silver screen who follow the gun shot. What do these super people think before they are about to go on the track before a career best performance? What do they think, when they run/swim/cycle? How do they cope with a win or a loss? How do they fall into and out of relationships? Cleave tries to go across all these points.
There is also some interesting philosophy here which remains long after the book is closed, like “sports is much simpler than life” and that a fraction of a second could decide what one’s life is all about. But how does one evaluate a win? How does one prioritise? Is the use of psychological games justified in sports? These are the questions that the novel raises. There is nothing like anybody’s “turn to win this time” in sports, says a character, each win is an effort. Cleave’s writing prowess showcases loneliness, helplessness, frustration, love and bravery and builds up a tempo that a reader enjoys. The climax is not what one anticipates, but, at the fag end of the story, the melodrama and easy solutions drag the story down.
Turning the last page the reader feels good but is left with no clear empathy for a particular character. I honestly didn’t feel curious about who won or if the kid recovered. But what I did take away from the novel was all about the Olympic Velodrome moments, the opening scene is most interestingly drawn. Read it for the Olympian glimpses, not for the story.