Partially because of the recent Winter Olympics, and partially because I’m just interested in it, I’ve recently read quite a few books about Olympic athletes. Some have been young adult books, some new adult, and some very adult. They’ve been about figure skating, snowboarding, swimming…
One thing they all have in common: every character who wants one ends up winning an Olympic gold medal.
Now, readers might see this as the only acceptable end to a book about an aspiring Olympian, but I beg to differ. In fact, I find the gold at the end of many of these books eyeroll-inducing.
I know most authors have no experience with an elite discipline, be it sport of dance or whatever. Nobody – not even the most talented person in history – goes into something ever expecting to make it anywhere near the top. Hoping, yes. Expecting, no.
To be an Olympic champion, all the stars – and then some – have to align. An athlete maybe won’t peak at the right time. They might get injured. Something well beyond their control might mean they miss out.
Many of the world’s best athletes – people who have been world champion multiple times – never win Olympic gold. Many don’t win an Olympic medal of any colour. Some never even make it to the Olympics. I would rather read about a hero or heroine who overcomes struggles in the book and finishes happy with Olympic silver or bronze than to read these impossible fairy tales coming true.
This is especially the case in a romance, when reading about a heroine ending up with gold, multi-million dollar endorsements, AND the perfect guy often reads more like a sixth-grader’s fan fiction fantasy than a book set in the real world.
Here are some real-life stories:
1. US gymnast Shawn Johnson arrived at the 2008 Olympics as the reigning world champion in the all-around, floor, and team events, and was the favourite to bring home a bagful of gold medals. The pressure on her was enormous.
However: she won silver in every event she was expected to take gold in. At only sixteen the media wrote story after story about how she’d failed her big test.
She pulled herself back together, and then – in the very last event on the very last day – surprised everyone by becoming an unlikely champion on the balance beam.
2. Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko came into the 1998 Olympics as the world champion from three of the previous four years.
However: Secretly sick, injured, and unable to take painkillers because of drug testing, he ended up in second.
3. US figure skater Michelle Kwan won eight world medals – five gold – and is considered one of the best skaters in history.
However: she managed silver in her first Olympics, bronze in her second, and then got injured at the third and didn’t make it onto the ice.
4. Ukrainian gymnast Oksana Omelianchik, competing for the USSR, is considered one of the best in history, and her floor routine is still famous. She is a three-time world champion.
However: she went through a growth spurt, lost some of her technique, and by the time the Olympics came round she was only a reserve and was left off the team.
For me, these are better stories.
These are amazing athletes with amazing achievements, but their stories are much more interesting and believable. I don’t want to read a book in any genre where everyone is perfect and gets everything. And it seems that authors are frightened to write a book about sport where everything doesn’t turn out perfectly in the end.
I wish they would take a chance.