I have to admit that I was an Olympic skeptic. There are many reasons for this but I put its origins down to childhood trauma. I had a serious sportsman for a father.
Back in the last century he went to Berlin to represent the UK in an international table tennis duel which produced an ode from the then Manchester Guardian to: ‘Five stalwart Englishmen, crossing the stormy ocean, To ping and to pong in Britannia’s name’. My mother cut it out and kept it. They broke up shortly afterwards. It took several years and a World War before he forgave her. And, notwithstanding his being a lifelong Labour voter, I never saw him buy or read The Guardian. Though, of course, that could have been down to the quality of the cricket reporting, which was what forced him into the embrace of the Torygraph, an organ whose leaders regularly reduced him to apoplexy at the breakfast table. He also ran various distances, played cricket, hockey, tennis, squash and God knows what else.
You will see that ours was a conflicted household. Sport was at the root of most of it.
As a result, show me a man in sports togs with the gleam of battle in his eye and I take a swift side step and head for the hills until it’s all over. Romantic hero? Nah, not a chance.
Kate Lace has changed all that.
Now, I’ll be honest, she’s a mate of mine, so I was always going to read COX. And she’s a good writer, so I expected to enjoy it. Did I expect to be swept away, horizons widened, world view changed? Well, no. Yet half way through reading it, there I was, watching the Olympic rowing– punctuated by her excited tweets — live, with my heart in my mouth. And, I’ll admit, the occasional tear in the eye too.
This is, quite simply, a lovely book. We follow a group of young rowers through their local or college clubs, to national trials, culminating in the Olympics themselves. The punishing training regimes, the costs of backsliding, the sheer physical strains of the race itself, even when you’re in peak condition, are fantastically vivid. And I never once disengaged, in spite of a lifetime of avoiding this stuff, because Kate Lace absolutely made me buy into the world of the story and care what happened to her cracking cast of characters.
There are the hunks, of course — dark, brooding guy works his way through college and is innately hostile to rich, careless, manipulative sex god working his way through anything female; and the gorgeous girls. And also, the quite nice, ordinary girls and the guys who don’t make the cut and still have a pretty good time anyway. They have flaws. They make dreadful misjudgements, about themselves and what they have to do to stay in the game. Earning a living isn’t always easy. And nor is keeping a relationship going when you’re really focused on your sport. You really feel for them. They also shag a lot and without benefit of whips and chains which, in the current literary climate, is a real pleasure. You have a huge sense of completion (and a couple of bonus rewards) at the end of the story.
Above all, it’s a load of fun. I hooted aloud more times than I can say. And I love the minor themes that run through the book, like the couple who are regularly surprised under tables in flagrante. Did I say, these guys shag a lot? Well, they’re in peak physical condition so it’s only to be expected.
What is so clever is that what these rowers achieve and what they mess up can be translated across just about every field of human endeavour. For instance, there is a spine-tingling account of how you can work in absolute harmony with someone you think is pure poison; and a woman who wants something so badly that she won’t try for it in case she misses, which made me wince with fellow feeling- as well as wanting to slap her; and the laughter and fellowship which get you through the good stuff and the bad.
So thanks to COX, I braced up and watched a race (or five or six), even though I knew most people were going to lose and it always makes my heart ache for their disappointment. And by golly, it made me respect our sportsmen and women. I whinge because I labour mightily over a book for months and months and then someone comes along and tells me she finished it before the bathwater got cold. Yet these guys put their whole lives on hold for four years while they train for the Olympics and their chance to show what they can do is over in minutes, even seconds.
This is definitely a book to read by the pool with a large drink or three. Or on a crowded train. Or anywhere, really. The world will hold you and the characters will take you with them and maybe even change you a little. And you’ll have a ball.