The Olympics in Historical Fiction: An Elusive Event
by Ken Kreckel
The mere mention of the London Olympics conjures up a raft of superlatives. Over 10,000 athletes will compete in hundreds of events covering 26 sports. Some 10 million tickets have been bought by nearly two million people. The 2012 Olympics includes venues across the whole of London. Besides the newly constructed Olympic Park, the sites include such venerable haunts as Wembley Stadium, Earl’s Court, and my personal favorite, Lord’s Cricket Ground. It has a budget of over nine billion pounds, but critics decry the cost could exceed seventeen or even twenty-four billion. Transport experts promise chaos. By any measure, the Games are a giant behemoth unleashed on London.
If you think all this inevitably carries over into the world of historical fiction, you would be wrong, very wrong. The truth is there is a dearth of fiction about the Olympics, any Olympics. If you add ‘historical’ to fiction, the list gets even smaller. Superlative turns to barely noticeable, the behemoth a mere puppy.
Although the number of historical novels set during the Olympics is unremarkable, one particular Games stands out — 1936 Berlin. It’s hardly surprising. The contrasts are fascinating: games dedicated to peace set in an increasingly warlike nation; athletes of all races competing in a country endeavoring to ‘purify’ its own population; a xenophobic government welcoming the world. These circumstances proved irresistible to the historical novelist.
One of the first of Philip Kerr’s outstanding Bernie Gunther series, March Violets (Penguin, 1990), is set at this time and place. [The title refers to latecomers to the Nazi ideology.] As the Nazis endeavor to hide their repression of the Jews, detective Gunther is on the trail of stolen diamonds. As usual, Bernie buys himself nothing but grief, this time earning a trip to Dachau for his efforts.
In much the same vein, A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge, 2011) involves her main character in espionage and murder during the ’36 Olympics. Posing as travel reporter Adelheid Zinsli, Hannah is busy wrestling secrets from her SS lover. After her mentor dies in front of her, this very same lover threatens to become her undoing as she searches for the murderer.
David John’s Flight from Berlin (Harper, 2012) is another thriller set during the 1936 Games. It features an English reporter who meets a night club singer in Berlin, at a reception hosted by none other than Goebbels himself. The protagonists end up being drawn into the dangerous sphere of pre-war intelligence, a secret contest between the British Secret Intelligence Service and the Nazis, both of whom are after a mysterious dossier.
Jeffery Deaver’s Garden of Beasts (Simon & Schuster, 2004) also covers thrilling territory during the ‘36 games. New York mafia hitman Paul Schumann has been caught by the Feds, and they give him a choice: prison or one more job…this time for the good ol’ U.S. of A. Schumann must assassinate one of the Nazi higher ups, which lands him in Berlin in the middle of the Games, relentlessly pursued by a German homicide detective.
Perhaps the finest of these novels is Frank Deford’s Bliss Remembered (Overlook Press, 2010). Penned by a giant among sports writers, it is unique in that the story is told through the eyes of an Olympic hopeful, swimmer Sydney Stringfellow. Deford manages to convey much of the psyche of an athlete, while at the same time telling a bigger story. Like Cantrell, Deford’s Sydney gets involved with a man, but this one is far from a committed Nazi. What follows is a multi-layered, complex story with a surprising, but satisfying plot twist at its end.
In what has to be one of the strangest of historical novels about the Olympics, Harry Turtledove penned an alternate history in American Empire: The Victorious Opposition (the seventh novel in his Southern Victory series, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003). Within its pages we have the 1936 Games being held in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. President Jake Featherston fails to ban black athletes from the Games, and then is mortified when a black Haitian takes a medal in a running event. Sound familiar?
Not all historical novels are set in the run up to World War II. However, in The Olympian – An American Triumph, by Craig T. Williams (iUniverse, 2010), race still figures strongly in the story. This is a fictionalized account of John Baxter Taylor’s life. Taylor (1882–1908) was a pioneering black athlete who overcame incredible odds to become the first African American Gold Medalist in Olympic Game history at the London Games in 1908.
Western author Don Coldsmith tackled race as well in The Long Journey Home (Forge, 2001). His antagonist is John Buffalo, a Lakota Sioux. Raised in the white man’s world, John realizes he has an enormous talent for running, and sets his sights on the Olympics. During his journey to the Games, he meets several celebrities, including Jesse Owens, the African-American gold medal winner snubbed by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. There’re those Berlin games once again!
Kristen den Hartog, in Origin of Haloes (McClelland & Stewart, 2005), uses the four-year Olympic cycle as the frame on which to construct her tale of her aspiring gymnast Kay Clancy. Beginning in the 1960s, her slightly offbeat tale of lies and suffering spans the next three decades.
Several works focus on the ancient Games. In The Seven Wonders (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) Steven Saylor’s prequel to his Roma Sub Rosa series, eighteen-year-old Gordianus embarks on a journey to see the Seven Wonders of the World. Beginning in 92 bc, he takes in the Olympic Games as well.
Helena Schrader told a fictionalized account of a true story in The Olympic Charioteer (2005). Based on ancient sources, the tale tells of Antyllus of Tegea and his quest for Olympic glory after the death of his son.
Patrick Hatten offers Champion of the Dead (Hilliard & Harris, 2010), a mystery centering on the death of an Athenian boxer during the original Games. In much the same vein is Michael B. Edwards’ Murder at the Panionic Games (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2002).
Some four decades ago, Rosemary Sutcliff released A Crown of Wild Olive [originally titled The Truce of the Games, and published in the collection Heather, Oak, and Olive (Dutton, 1972)]. Primarily a children’s book, the work features two athletes from different ways of life who learn the meaning of friendship through competing against each other in the ancient Olympic Games.
In Hour of the Olympics (Random House, 1998), Mary Pope Osborne’s children’s book utilizes a Magic Tree House to allow two children to travel back to ancient Greece to view the Games. However, there is a problem — no girls allowed!
A very different account can be found in Tom Holt’s Olympiad (Little Brown, 2000), a comic look at the first Olympic Games. Filling in what has been lost about the first Olympic Games, which is most everything, Holt comes to the rescue by supplying an innovative and entertaining description.
There you have it, a short list of historical novels featuring the Olympic Games. As it is hardly exhaustive, I invite others to add their favorites. Certainly there are more out there. However, even with additional titles, the list of historical novels set at the Games is likely to remain rather paltry. The question is raised: why? What is it about the Olympics that fiction writers, especially historical novelists, tend to shy away from? Are we such bookworms that athletics are beyond us?
Or do the Games simply speak for themselves, the human story of competition sufficient unto itself with no need for fictionalization?
About the contributor: Ken Kreckel, a former features editor for the HNR, has contributed numerous articles to the magazine. One of his favorite memories is attending a formal dinner at the Lord’s Cricket Grounds.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 61, August 2012