More than 10,000 athletes are headed to London this summer to run, swim, cycle, shoot, fence and compete in the events of the Olympic Games. Each of them has a story — what they've won, what they've lost and what they've sacrificed just to get their chance to get there.
Chris Cleave's latest novel, Gold, tells the stories of three world-ranked cyclists — Zoe, Jack and Kate — who are training for their last chance at Olympic gold. Zoe and Kate are friends as well as rivals; Jack and Kate are raising an 8-year-old who suffers from leukemia.
Chris Cleave, whose previous best-sellers include Little Bee and Incendiary, spoke with NPR's Scott Simon.
On getting in shape for Gold
"I think, in common with a lot of novelists, I wasn't the most athletic guy at school. I think it was always considered safer to pass me a book than to pass me the ball in team sports. So, in order to write about [Olympic cyclists], I had to learn about them, I had to understand it. So I started training. I started training 20 hours a week on the bike because I wanted to know what it would feel like to have the training demands of an athlete. I wanted to know what it felt like in the body to win and to lose."
On the "friendship between rivals" at the novel's core
"The book's the story of, really, an epic sporting rivalry between Kate and Zoe. Zoe — fiercely determined, an incredible competitor — never stops trying to psych out her rival. Kate [is] an easier character to like, the more naturally gifted athlete, but with a whole set of problems of her own that we begin to discover during the book. ... What I love about their relationship is they're always half-joking. There's a nervous truth in the jests and the barbs that they throw at each other. I think that the relationship between two top-level athletes who are rivals is one of the most fascinating human relationships to explore. It's always one atom away from being a tragedy."
On Sophie, a child who provides an alternate perspective
"[Jack and Kate's daughter] Sophie is an extraordinary character because she's suffering from such an extreme form of illness that she's seen things in her life that a bunch of us who are a lot older haven't even seen, so she has a wisdom beyond her years, and she has a perspective on the rivalry between the two adult characters, between Zoe and Kate, that they don't have themselves. And I hope that Sophie provides a kind of absolute counterpoint to the relative struggles of Kate and Zoe as they try to win gold."
On "what's pitiless and cruel about sport"
"It's extremely hard for athletes to accept what's happened to them sometimes. It's hard to be beaten by a small margin, and I've spoken with athletes who, for years afterward, have been tormented by the knowledge that, had they done something ever so slightly different, they could have been one-ten-thousandth of a second quicker. And they torture themselves about this."
On what he hopes readers will discuss after reading the novel
"[That's] exactly what the issue is: Is it something that you would like your child to do? To compete at this very highest level, knowing that to win is also to break someone else's dreams? My answer to that is nuanced. I think that there's something extremely beautiful about the Olympic ideal and its motto — 'Swifter, higher, stronger' — it's such a beautiful motto, and it celebrates everything which is the antithesis of death and dissolution and entropy. And it's a promise, if you like, that's renewed in each generation of athletes who come up and strive and struggle for that top step of the podium."