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Olympic Reading

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"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee

With the closing of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games rapidly approaching, many avid fans are desperate to keep the Olympic torch burning. Diving into some Olympic-themed fiction might be just the answer.

What is it about the Olympics that creates such an intense backdrop for a novel? Nicola Keegan's 2009 novel Swimming explores that question through the eyes of a young female swimmer on her Olympic journey. "You take this kid who loves something and has this strange, inexplicable asset like feet so long they work like flippers, or a shy boy with asthma who has shoulder blades that rival the wingspan of a Pterodactyl, or this little kid who can hold one leg behind her ear as she balances the rest of her body on one big toe on an elevated hardwood plank, and they are all oddly concentrated individuals with too much energy and a crazy work ethic which fuels a crazy drive," explains Keegan. "The Olympics are huge. It's a glorious metaphor for life, but condensed, liquefied, purified, faster twisting right down to one essential drop and it is now or it is never. It's so dramatic and theatrical and gritty and human and if you don't love it, I imagine it would drive you nuts. It doesn't matter how technically advanced we may seem to be; it doesn't matter how hard, how fast, and for how long we live, human beings are these miraculously beautiful, extremely diverse yet amazingly similar, ultimately fragile bipeds and the Olympics, I believe, remind us of that."

Chris Cleave is very familiar with Olympic terrain. His latest novel, Gold, released this summer and centers on a pair of champion cyclists. When researching the Olympics for his novel, he focused on the psychology of competitors and spent a lot of time with athletes. He also trained intensively on a bike to experience what it felt like to win and lose for himself. "As a writer I'm always interested in the psychological back story behind the surface story, and to me the journey athletes make to reach the start line of an Olympic event is even more intriguing than the act of competition itself. I fell in love all over again with the Olympic motto -- Swifter, Higher, Stronger -- which is the antithesis of a popular perception of what is happening to our societies. I embraced it as a rallying cry and a call to action, and I hope Gold is a celebration of the sacrifices people make and the heights they can rise to when they care about something, or someone."

Keegan also dove head first into the Olympics and the sport of swimming while researching her novel. "I did a ton of research because I knew nothing. I read the psychological profiles of great athletes. I read books on the philosophy of sport. I read books on the optimum athletic diet, books on swimming dynamics, memoir after memoir about going for the gold. I read articles on the doping scandals that touched the poor East Germans and Chinese swimmers in the eighties and nineties, the terrible medical problems that ensued. I learned what swimmer was at the top of their form, what kind of music they listened to, what food they liked to eat, how they dealt with pressure. I learned who said their prayers before the plunge, who listened to gangster rap, who smoked pot off-season. I knew who was bad tempered, who wore their heart on their sleeve. I followed the diabolically motivated, the team players, the visionaries, the superstars, the divas, the swimmers that swam under their own full potential time after time. I followed the rivalries, the barely disguised jealousies, the outright wars. I followed the injuries, the rehabilitations, the early retirements. I dove into horrible city swimming pools in the middle of Paris and pulled myself through until my mind stopped working and I imagined what it would be like to do that, every day, for five hours, while someone was yelling at me from the deck, and I wondered what it would take to get so good, that no one in the world could be better. I imagined one of the driving emotions, one that does in fact motivate a lot of elite athletes, as being a barely diffused existential rage. And this seemed so interesting to me."

Cleave believes the Olympics are an exercise in intensity. "Take the attention of the whole planet and focus it in glorious high-definition slow-mo through ten thousand camera lenses onto the human race's most extreme characters as they turn themselves inside out to maximize the possibilities of every ten thousandth of a second. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck! And now imagine you can freeze that ten thousandth of a second in which the race is won or lost, and examine its animating psychology, and trace its history all the way back through the lives of the rivals until you reach those other intense moments, in their childhoods, in which their ambition and their drive were formed. It's compelling because the Olympics are so incredibly selective: they filter out everything and everyone mediocre. What remains is the white heat of physical and emotional extremity."

You can't deny the action, adventure and tension that emanates through this small window of time when the world is watching. James Patterson used the London Olympics as the backdrop for his thriller, Private Games. "I knew it would be fascinating to set a story against the backdrop of the most exciting sporting event in the world. The Olympics are watched by millions of people who feel a connection to their team and their national pride," said Patterson. "Private Games takes place after the London riots, at a time of great unrest in the city -- but there's the added tension and excitement of the Olympic Games which are steeped in history and are the height of athletic competition. Over the years we've seen major emotional, religious and political moments played out against the backdrop of the Olympic Games -- what could be more intense than a sporting event which highlights our humanity and connection to our fellow citizens around the world?"

As Cleave explained, "The Olympics are more than a sporting occasion, they are a celebration of our occasional ability to come together as planet and if you can't think of something to like there then you aren't thinking hard enough."

So when the Olympic flame goes out and the athletes return to their gyms and tracks, aquatic centers and courts, they will remember that for one brief moment in history, all eyes were on them. Whether they succeeded or failed, triumphed with gold or saw their hopes dashed, they will live on forever in Olympic history. These novels give us a glimpse of what that life might be like, if only for a moment.