The Essay: 'If writers begin to the imagine the pursuit of athletic excellence, they may soon reach the limits of body and vocabulary alike'


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Novelists write about sport roughly as often as athletes write novels. When fiction writers do go into that sweaty realm, the sporting action tends to be a gritty backdrop - as with James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. Or else it provides a set of real results in the collective memory around which a fiction can be woven, as David Peace did brilliantly in The Damned United.

There is a healthy genre of football yarns for boys, with titles like Striker! and Boots of Glory, but rarely do the serious struggles of competitors take centre stage in a novel intended for the over-tens. This is true despite the attentions of some talented writers who understood sport and liked it. Norman Mailer was as technically gifted as his infamous photoshhot as a pot-bellied pugilist was ill advised, yet when he wrote about boxing in The Fight, he took the gloves off by switching to non-fiction.

The reluctance of novelists to tackle sport is at first glance rather strange, because in the great rivalries between athletes we find all of the ingredients - love, honour, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice – that William Faulkner listed as being essential to good work. Indeed, the real-life battles between pairs of sporting nemeses can often be stranger than fiction.

So bitter was the animosity between the Olympic figure skating hopefuls Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan that, in the run-up to the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Harding's coterie hired a goon to break Kerrigan's leg. The attack was only partially successful and, while the injury was serious, Kerrigan recovered in time for both women to occupy America's only two figure skating places at the Olympics. Imagine the dialogue in that US team locker room, an hour before the competition. I challenge you to write that scene without describing the relationship between two ice skaters as "frosty".

After dropping out of skating, Harding embarked on a turbulent boxing career, set a land speed record in a vintage automobile, and was involved in increasingly complicated alcohol-fuelled tangles with the law. If I made Tonya Harding up, critics would announce my departure from realism. I would definitely not, for example, write a skating-themed novel entitled Rink of Madness.

I did want to write a story about sport, though, because its possibilities were so compelling. Sport is an extreme and highly formalised mode of human competitiveness, in which the themes of ambition and obsession are writ large. Because sport is governed by such strict rules of fairness, there is a particular fascination with the transgression of those rules when the athletes walk out of our public arenas and into their private lives. Or, more beguilingly, into each other's. If we want to examine our morals and our motives, our ethics and emotions, then sport is surely a productive arena for the novel.

Sport almost seems to demand a fictional treatment, and if novelists are mostly reluctant to go there, then sports writers are often less shy. Some of the greatest true-life sporting rivalries may have been less true than we imagine.

Perhaps the archetypal British sporting enmity was that between athletes Sebastian, now Lord, Coe and Steve, now Steve, Ovett. Throughout their increasingly dramatic years of duels on the track, during which each man spurred the other to performances that neither could have delivered alone, Coe was portrayed as the smooth-talking sophisticate and Ovett as the recalcitrant working-class lad, impelled to victory by his mute rage against the middle-class overlords.

Picture editors tended to favour foreshortened shots where the snarling and much larger Ovett, chasing his rival around the final bend of the track, appeared to be hunting him down as a prelude to dismembering and eating him. Coe and Ovett was the Beatles and the Stones, Blur and Oasis: every Briton was required as a civic duty to choose their side. Yet in recent years both athletes have downplayed the rivalry and intimated that too much was made of the class divide. Ovett recently refused to cooperate with a BBC biopic because he suspected that it was set to revisit the old clichés.

Perhaps a commendable reluctance to overdramatise is at the root of novelists' chariness about sport. Certainly, the drama of competition is already so overt that it requires a change in technical focus from a writer whose apparatus is usually calibrated for accentuating the intimate theatre of everyday life in order to stage it on the page. With sport, the novelist must go the other way, teasing out that which is intimate and ambiguous from a fray that is universally broadcast and conducted under pitiless floodlights that leave the result in no doubt. In order to capture the hidden essence of sport, it is necessary to imagine oneself with particular precision into the minds and the bodies of one's protagonists.

This is where the problems start. While the mind is well within the competent novelist's purview, the body is largely beyond our jurisdiction. Chasing down a story about sport, I often felt like a panting sheriff, foiled by my quarry's simple tactic of crossing the county line. Yet to neglect the sensory messages of the body when writing about athleticism would be to omit the subject's most salient feature.

I'm the kind of writer who wants his sphinx to have a nose. The body, I realised, had to be reclaimed and inhabited. I had to fill its veins with words and its lungs with pauses, and I had to find a rhythm for its heart.

The body, however, is flamboyantly, extravagantly resistant to the advances of a writer. Describing athletic action is quite as problematic, stylistically, as writing about sex. If people attempted it more often, there would certainly be an annual Bad Sport Award to compensate the most egregious attempts. I used to do the occasional sex scene (can I stress that I'm speaking about my writing rather than my film career?) and from what I can remember of them, there was quite a degree of crossover between sex prose and sports talk. Both feature heavy breathing and accelerated pulse, both can involve a cringeworthy degree of wishful self-projection by the unwary writer, and both need a good shower afterwards.

The greatest obstacle for an author in writing convincingly about the body is a basic unfamiliarity with the material. Novelists, in the main, were not the most athletic kids at school. Our bodies serve largely to furnish the frontal lobes with oxygenated blood in order that apostrophes may be optimally placed. We know little of the body's quickening above 150 beats per minute of heart rate, or its longing for food and water after a serious block of training, or its chronic and frightening fatigue after overtraining. One of the reasons we're writers, after all, is that in our youth it was considered safer to pass us a book than the ball.

The body in extremis is mare incognitum for the novelist, and it requires a deliberate change of course to venture into that uncharted, unclaimed space. In researching my previous books, I interviewed my subjects. In researching my novel about athletes, Gold, I interviewed my body. I asked it questions like: What hurts when you reach your maximum heart rate? What happens when you hit the tarmac at speed? What does it feel like, physically, when you win and when you lose? What happens when you train too hard? Not all of these questions were ones I set out intending to ask, but I found answers to them all.

I trained on a bike for 20 hours a week, for eight weeks. I responded well to the training, and the physical improvement was startling. It was like being in charge of a brand new body, and I took to it with the delight of a newborn foal tottering on its supermodel legs.

After a couple of weeks I could ride up things I used to walk up. After a month, I could ride up them quickly. After six weeks, I began to take a savage and unforeseen delight in overtaking my fellow riders and leaving them gasping for air.

I filled in an application for a racing licence, and my only regret was that I might have left it too late to represent my country at the Worlds. After two months of training I would find myself arriving at the foot of Box Hill, my local test-piece and soon to be the crucible of the Olympic road race. Instead of mentally groaning I would catch myself muttering phrases like: "Atomic batteries to full power". I had become, to use a technical term common to both literature and cycling, a bit of a dick.

Then, one morning without warning, I woke up sick and couldn't train. I raged and broke crockery like a frustrated addict. I waited three days for the symptoms to clear. I waited a month. Blood tests revealed a gravely low white blood cell count. I'd overtrained, and my immune system was broken for an unknowable period.

It dragged on for months. I became sad, and somehow smaller. It wasn't until then, when it had all been taken away from me, that I intimately understood how beautiful sport is and how exceptional athletes are.

I sat down quietly and wrote my novel, not from a place of strength, but in sickness and humility. I have a respect for athletes now that I had never guessed at. Their world remains an unclimbable peak for me, and one that I gaze at with longing from these foothills I have struggled up.

More than ever, I believe that sport is a beautiful subject for a novel. The greatest athletes - whether they happen to be our own bitter sporting rivals or simply the object of our admiration - inspire us to heights we could not attain alone. This is their gift to us, paid for in sweat and sacrifice and renewed in every generation: this fierce translation from Latin into life of that oldest Olympic motto - Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Chris Cleave's new novel, 'Gold', will be published on 7 June by Sceptre. His previous novels, 'The Other Hand' and 'Incendiary', are available in paperback