Gold, By Chris Cleave

A sporting story geared towards human drama

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The Independent Culture

Hurrah! The Olympics! The wall of sponsorship messages, the cash machine debacles, the terrifying copyright implementation! With less than six weeks to go, it is increasingly feeling as if this year's Olympic Games has less to do with sporting ambition than corporate box-ticking, and frankly a lot of the potential audience is already bored rigid. It's almost as if, in order to keep the nation's spirits high until the opening ceremony, we need some sort of well told story to remind us of the human drama behind the behemoth. Enter Chris Cleave.

Cleave has an exemplary track record at painting vivid dramas against backdrops of real life news stories. Incendiary, which was coincidentally published on 7 July 2005, featured a suicide bombing in London, and The Other Hand tackled the issue of Nigerian asylum seekers to extraordinary effect and immense sales figures.

In Gold, he goes a step further, by setting much of the action at the yet-to-happen 2012 Olympics. His three protagonists are the competing British cyclists Zoe Castle, Kate Meadows and Kate's husband Jack, and the stage is set for a protein shakes and lactic acid filled sporting novel. But the presence of Sophie, Kate and Jack's young daughter, lifts the novel. While Kate is arguably the better cyclist, her chances of winning gold are about to be scuppered a second time: Sophie is suffering from leukemia.

Cleave does a magnificent job of exploring the emotional terrain that top athletes must travel in order to become champions. Zoe, with her massive sponsorship deals and glamorous apartment, is broken inside. She needs to win, as she has little else. But Kate, with her marriage, her sick daughter and her more amiable nature, is less hungry for gold.

It all seems so simple, and the parallels a little obvious, until Cleave introduces Sophie's voice. Star Wars obsessed, and more than aware of the impact that her illness is having on her stressed and exhausted parents, Sophie attempts to navigate the effects of chemotherapy through fantasy and role play, hoping that she can hold her nerve long enough to allow her parents to compete. Her perspective makes for almost excruciating reading, yet is so powerfully direct that any remaining quibbles about reading a sports book are hurled aside.

Yet the cycling action is far from neglected. Training, stretching and competing are all brought to the page with zippy confidence, and the plot rattles along despite the occasionally soapy navel-gazing. Cleave has undoubtedly put in the hours where research is concerned, as the technicalities and the (actual) rule change that provides one of the novels bigger twists gleam with authenticity.

Tom, the women's coach, is a lovely secondary character, all knackered knees, cynical insights and big heart. Even Jack, who is the weakest of the lot, feels like the kind of sportsman we all know. It is this that makes the novel so readable: despite the relentless training, the chemo drama, and the global stage that these characters inhabit, they stay relentlessly human. What we're so at risk of forgetting is that these top-tier athletes are not sponsorship machines but human beings, driven by basic impulses and desires. It might feel a little pulpy at times, but Gold does a magnificent job of reminding us what we're actually going to be watching this summer: emotional drama.