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What is the greatest work of art inspired by the modern Olympic Games? From a thin and lame field, many critics would still plump for Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia of 1938 - however much it sticks in the craw to praise Hitler's chief aesthetic cheerleader.

What is the greatest work of art inspired by the modern Olympic Games? From a thin and lame field, many critics would still plump for Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia of 1938 - however much it sticks in the craw to praise Hitler's chief aesthetic cheerleader.

At least the documentary-makers tried their best. And a legion of eloquent sports journalists have struck peak form at the Games. Yet prose fiction - the medium that, along with film, defined 20th-century culture - has found nothing to say about one of its most distinctive events.

You will sometimes hear moans from writers that no big, new subjects ever come along to excite them. Drivel. Virtually no serious fiction has explored one major trend of today's world: the fairly rapid transformation of competitive sport into the global crossroads of commerce and celebrity. It's not as if our current literary stars lack for real sporting enthusiasms. Yet the Amises, Byatts, Barneses and Pinters seem content to let their private passions out for a canter only in the odd essay.

This silence forms a part of modern literature's scorn for sport. (Dick Francis and Nick Hornby alone won't spoil that generalisation, I think.) True, some disciplines do better than others in the literary arena - boxing, most notably, with heavyweights such as Lardner and Mailer. And, in the postwar years, a rising generation did find in sport a vehicle for the social aspirations of their age: Malamud's The Natural; Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner; Storey's This Sporting Life.

Since then, the genuine champs in fiction have fled from the stadium. This is bewildering: if any cultural activity matches the solitary, anxious preparations of the athlete, it must be composing a literary novel. The fit looks perfect; but most writers still turn their backs. So, for sporting fiction, I'm left to ponder the BBC Guide to the Olympics 2000 (£5.99), with its solemn pretence that taekwondo and synchronised swimming deserve their places in the Sydney sun.

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