In 'Gold,' Olympic Rivalry Is Personal, Professional Chris Cleave's newest novel chronicles the friendship and rivalry between cyclists training for the 2012 Olympics. He speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about the fascination of athletic rivalries, how he got in shape for the book and what he hopes readers will take away.

In 'Gold,' Olympic Rivalry Is Personal, Professional

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More than 10,000 athletes will go to London to run, swim, cycle, shoot, fence and compete in events at the Summer Olympic Games and each of them has a story - what they've won, what they've lost, 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 and friends - Zoe, Jack and Kate - training for their last chance at Olympic medals. Chris Cleave, whose previous best-sellers include "Little Bee" and "Incendiary," joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS CLEAVE: Oh, hello. Thank you very much for inviting me.

SIMON: You became a pretty serious cyclist to write this novel, I gather.

CLEAVE: I did. 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 these people, 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.

SIMON: What happens if your next novel's about a neurosurgeon?


CLEAVE: I think there'd be a steeper learning curve, wouldn't there. There might be a long hiatus between this novel and the next if that would to be the case.

SIMON: Could I get you to read a section from this book?

CLEAVE: Yeah, please.

SIMON: This is - well, I'll have you set it up a bit.

CLEAVE: Yeah. I mean, 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, an easier character to like, the more naturally gifted athlete but with a whole set of problems her own that we begin to discover during the book. And this is a scene where the two explore the issues of that complicated friendship between rivals.

SIMON: (Reading) Zoe said, you have things to live for. Kate, you've got everything. Not everything, said Kate. Zoe exhaled irritably. Oh, Christ, Kate, gold is a lump of yellow metal on a shiny red string. That's easy to say when you've won it. Oh, you think, said Zoe? Oh, you know what, said Kate, I don't even care. So long as we both get to that final in London and we're both on that podium, I don't care which of us wins gold. Oh, no, no, no. Nor do I, said Zoe, as long as it's me. Kate smiled and shook her head. Oh, honestly, Zoe, what are we going to do with you?


SIMON: Now, were either of them being totally sincere there? I mean, is Kate totally sincere in saying it doesn't matter to her who wins, and for that matter is Zoe being totally sincere?

CLEAVE: What I love about their relationship is that they're always half-joking. There's a nervous truth in the jests and the bobs 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 at one atom away from being a tragedy.

SIMON: A character who's glimpsed in almost page who I mentioned is Sophie, who is Kate and Jack's 8-year-old who is struggling with leukemia. It's hard to read about her struggles. Does this little girl see Zoe and Kate differently?

CLEAVE: 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.

SIMON: Yeah. And without tipping what happens, ultimately, they race and the difference can be measured in an eyelash. Is that a hard thing to accept when you do that for a living, that the difference between two great athletes, that can determine someone who will be known for a gold medal the rest of his or her life and someone who will be a physical education teacher at a grammar school. Is that difficult to accept?

CLEAVE: That's what 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 afterwards, have been tormented by the knowledge that had their done something ever so slightly different, they could have been one ten-thousandth of a second quicker. And they torture themselves about this.

SIMON: Is it a life that a good parent would want for their child, 'cause there's a child towards the end of the book who's very interested in this.

CLEAVE: Um-huh. And that's why, for me, the ending of the novel is ambiguous. I like the book to leave you with something to talk about with someone else who's read the book. And for me, in this case, you've put your finger on 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. You know, swifter, higher, stronger is 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.

SIMON: Chris Cleave. His new novel, just in time for the London Olympic Games, is "Gold." Mr. Cleave, thanks so much.

CLEAVE: Thank you very much.

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