Why Are Olympic Sports Absent from Fiction?


Alison Morris - August 14, 2008

I’m shamefacedly hooked on watching the Olympics this year, staying up much too late to get my fix of swimming, gymnastics, or whatever events happened to be featured on a given evening. I’ve been particularly keen to catch a few of the U.S. women’s field hockey games, because a close high school friend, Kate Reisinger, is one of the team’s managers, and I think it’d be so completely cool to just catch even a glimpse of her on the sidelines! During our senior year of high school Kate and I co-captained the varsity field hockey team, along with our friend Colleen. Field hockey was a HUGE part of our lives every fall. We had a coach, Anna Baldini, for whom we’d have done almost ANYTHING. She was amazing! Fantastic! And about as entertaining as any human being has a right to be.

I was recalling all of my best field hockey memories the other day and realizing, though, that I haven’t seen any of them represented in any of the middle grade or young adult fiction that I’ve read. At least, not that I can recall… And that got me thinking about all the other sports that are popular with kids in various parts of the country or even throughout the country that just don’t make many appearances in novels nowadays (not counting those included in the Matt Christopher books or Jake Maddox books or other sports-specific series). This surprised me. And it disappointed me too. With all the books coming out these days, shouldn’t we see a bigger range/better mix of sports being represented in children’s and young adult fiction?

I can name countless novels about kids playing baseball, many about kids playing football or basketball, some about kids playing soccer or kids riding horses (though the books really about equestrians almost all feature girls), and a few about kids playing softball (again, girls). When it comes to swimming, things get harder. Tennis? Diving? Trickier still. Lacrosse? Gymnastics? Almost nill. Archery? Forget it, unless it’s historical. Ice skating? Ice hockey? I could go on.

Or where are the books about kids who play three or four sports a year—a different one each season? Most really athletic kids tend to play one sport in the fall, one in the winter, and one in the spring. Where are the books about kids like them?

What I’d like to see most are books that are not about kids playing one of these oft-played, less-often-featured-in-fiction sports but books in which a kid happens to play one of them. In other words, I’d love to read a novel about a girl’s struggles with the social scene in which she blows off some of her frustration at field hockey practice. Or a book about a boy adjusting to a new school who starts fencing while he’s there. It’s always a bonus when a book will appeal to kids interested in a particular sport, but where other kids unfamiliar with it won’t get lost in all the sports chatter. You don’t have to know or love soccer, for example, to love Tangerine by Edward Bloor, in which soccer is a big part of the main character’s life. Even if you hate basketball, you’ll still love Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in which there are some great basketball-playing scenes. I’m no equestrian, but my friend Kim Ablon Whitney’s book The Perfect Distance held my attention from start to finish, as did Carolyn Coman’s Many Stones, in which the main character is a swimmer.

Listed below are all the sports in the current Summer Olympic games and the upcoming (September) Summer Paralympic Games, plus those in the 2010 Winter Olympic games and 2010 Winter Paralympic Games, to get you authors and publishers thinking, scheming, writing, acquiring. A novel about judo, anyone? Or how about wheelchair curling? You might laugh, but if someone could write a book about wheelchair curling that’s even a fraction as compelling as Murderball, the award-winning documentary about quadripelegic rugby players, we’d have a real winner on our hands/shelves. That’s the kind of book to which I’d like to give a gold medal.

SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Archery
Badminton
Baseball
Basketball
Beach Volleyball
Boxing
Canoe/Kayak
Cycling
Diving
Equestrian
Fencing
Field Hockey
Gymnastics
Handball
Judo
Modern Pentathalon
Rhythmic Gymnastics
Rowing
Sailing
Shooting
Soccer
Softball
Swimming
Synchronized Swimming
Table Tennis
Taekwondo
Tennis
Track & Field
Trampoline
Triathlon
Volleyball
Water Polo
Weightlifting
Wrestling

WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES
Alpine Skiing
Biathlon
Bobsleigh
Cross-Country Skiing
Curling
Figure Skating
Freestyle Skiing
Ice Hockey
Ice Sledge Hockey
Luge
Nordic Combined
Short Track Speed Skating
Skeleton
Ski Jumping
Snowboard
Speed Skating 

SUMMER PARALYMIC GAMES

Archery
Athletics
Boccia
Cycling
Equestrian
Football 5-a-side
Football 7-a-side
Goalball
Judo
Powerlifting
Rowing
Sailing
Shooting
Swimming
Table tennis
Volleyball
Wheelchair basketball
Wheelchair Fencing
Wheelchair Rugby
Wheelchair Tennis

WINTER PARALYMPIC GAMES

Alpine skiing
Ice sledge hockey
Nordic skiing
Biathlon
Cross-country skiing
Wheelchair curling

25 thoughts on “Why Are Olympic Sports Absent from Fiction?

  1. Julianne Daggett

    I think you have a point Alison. Except for the most sports devoted, kids play sports for fun and its apart of their lives, not their lives in and of themselves. It would be good to see different kids play different sports and have it just be a part of their lives and make them a fuller, more complex character. Also it would be a neat trick by the authors to play up the fact that, say, a girl is a Bobsledder instead of the stereotypical soccer or softball. willothewispablogaboutchildrensbooks.blogspot.com/

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  2. Dodie Ownes

    Here’s a list of titles from a recent column in School Libary Journal’s Extra Helping newsletter: FORD, Michael. You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Greek Athlete!: Races You’d Rather Not Run. illus. by David Antram. Watts. 2004. PLB $29. ISBN 978-0-531-12352-2; pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-0-531-16394-8. Gr 3-6–Full of facts and humor, Ford’s punchy text and Antram’s cartoon illustrations make this title a winner for a unit on Greek life as well as the Olympics. Readers are introduced to the basics of this now-international competition through the story of a poor farmer’s son who competes in the Olympics in fifth-century Greece. Nude (“as a symbol of religious purity”) athletes are posed discreetly, and guarantee a lot of attention. A glossary and index are included. MACY, Sue. Swifter, Higher, Stronger: A Photographic History of the Summer Olympics. National Geographic. 2008. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-4263-0290-9; PLB $27.90. ISBN 978-1-4263-0302-9. Gr 3 Up–Updated since the 2004 edition, this chronological photographic essay presents the history of the Olympics from its earliest times to a preview of the 2008 Games. Every image in this browser’s delight has a great story behind it, and Macy tells them all. Any young athlete who has dreamed of being part of the OIympics will find inspiration in both the photographs and writing. Like it cold? Check out Macy’s Freeze Frame: A Photographic History of the Winter Olympics (National Geographic, 2006). OSBORNE, Mary Pope. Hour of the Olympics. illus. by Sal Murdocca. Random. 1998. PLB $11.99. ISBN 978-0-679-99062-8; pap. $3.99. ISBN 978-0-679-89062-1. Gr 3-5–Magical librarian Morgan le Fay charges Jack and Annie with the recovery of an ancient story, landing them in Greece at an early Olympics. Readers will learn about Greek words, customs, and mythology as the pair’s adventure unfolds. A meeting with Plato, Annie’s arrest, and a daring rescue by Pegasus make for a satisfying bit of historical fiction. The companion nonfiction research guide, Ancient Greece and the Olympics (Random, 2004), provides excellent background on both topics, and includes an index and list of additional resources. YOO, Paula. Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story. Lee & Low. 2005. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-58430-247-6. K-Gr 3–Korean-American Sammy Lee loves to swim, but the pool is only available to nonwhites one day a week. His African-American friend teaches him how to dive, and Sammy sets his sights on being an Olympic diver, despite his father’s wish for him to become a doctor. Against the odds, he wins a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, at age 28. This beautifully illustrated and inspirational picture book covers a lot of ground—segregation, integration, reverence, and perseverance. ZUCKER, Jonny. Speed Star. illus. by Enzo Troiano. Stone Arch. 2007. PLB $21.26. ISBN 978-1-59889-335-9; pap. $4.95. ISBN 978-1-59889-431-8. Gr 3-5–Designed to encourage reluctant readers, this graphic novel features Rex Jones, the best runner in his school. He is initially intimidated by bully Mike Stone, who tells him, “You are a waste of time…. I’m going to beat you so easily in the race.” Determined to make it into the Olympics, Rex keeps trying, and with the help of a mysterious stranger, he thinks he can make it to the finish line. A glossary and discussion questions are included. A nice addition to the hi-lo fiction genre.

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  3. Suec

    I agree, there’s a dearth of sports oriented fiction. Here’s my theory as to why: bookish kids don’t play sports so much (your experience notwithstanding) and sporty kids don’t have as much reading time. Bookish kids grow up to become writers. Sporty kids grow up to become management in large successful companies, or Olympic field hockey coaches. 😉

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  4. Ellen

    Alison, I completely agree with you — where ARE those books? I would love to see comments from editors or publishers, to hear their side of things. That list above of Olympics books kind of missed the point. Does anyone know of some more books along the lines of Alison’s post that haven’t been mentioned? It would be great to know about them. And I can now admit that I, too, am shamefully hooked on the Olympics, and also staying up way too late. But I do have to ask: What’s the deal with Bob Costas’s hair??

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  5. Jon

    I see a bigger point here: Because of the familiarity of certain activities, it’s easy for characters to become one-dimensional — e.g. “he’s a baseball player” or “she’s rides horses” — when we should be looking at the totality of character’s life — all the interests, likes, dislikes, fears and hopes that make up “real” people. By using less familiar sports, as you suggest, authors can avoid having their work pigeonholed as a “baseball story” or a “book about dancing” — and they can avoid falling into the trap of thinking about their story (and their characters) in the same manner. Excellent stuff — real food for thought. Jon, write4kids.com

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  6. SueC2

    Hey. Who is this Sue C.? There is another? Anyway, I do think she has a point, to some extent. However I was a bookish kid and captain of my high school gymnastics team and I would love to write a novel that had a gymnastics subplot especially if it meant somebody would let me tumble my 40-something body across their mats for a few weeks or hang upside down from the parallel bars so I could recreate the feeling of the blood rushing to one’s head. Everytime I see a gym mat I get an itch to do a cartwheel which could cause me to really really hurt myself. Sue C(orbett)

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  7. gayle brandeis

    I’m actually working on a novel about an Olympic hopeful pairs skater (if all goes well deadline-wise, it will be published by Ballantine next year.) I was a skater when I was young (not an Olympic hopeful, but a hopeful skater nonetheless) and it’s wonderful to return to the ice on the page.

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  8. Julianne Daggett

    What happened to my English skills? My second comment should have been this:”I disagree with suec. My sister, three of my five cousins and I were all athletes when we were kids, and all of us read voraciously.”

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  9. Giogas

    I agree as a former competitive figure skater. As winter sports go, figure skating and hockey are easier to find in books. I’ve written a picture book that includes not only figure skating, but luge and ski jumping as well. I chose the latter 2 b/c of their obscurity and b/c they upped the humor factor.

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  10. Barbara Ehrentreu

    In my novel, which I am sending to a publisher, one of the characters is on the Olympic track for gymnastics. Yet it doesn’t center on this at all. I hope publishers are feeling the same way as you. I am also very excited about the Olympics this year. My entire family is glued to the TV and the emotions of the athletes have really communicated to us. We are rooting for the volleyball teams and cheering on the swimmers and my daughter and I had tears in our eyes tonight when both the girls won gold and silver. Just terrific!

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  11. Kate

    As an Olympics junkie and a YA fan, I’ve often wondered the same thing. The Alex Archer books by New Zealand writer Tessa Duder are quite good.

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  12. Julianne Daggett

    While we’re on Olympics and children’s fiction, how about a children’s book about Michael Phelps? Perhaps a picture book and a biography. And what about a graphic novel(?), that should be pretty cool.

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  13. Noa

    I think the boy in Chris Crutcher’s STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES is a swimmer, right? And Cynthia Voigt’s THE RUNNER (one of the books about the Tillerman family) has to do with long-distance running (but not exclusively). Oh, and Holling does some running and running training in THE WEDNESDAY WARS (Gary Schmidt). But that’s all I can think of off the top of my head.

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  14. KRISTA MONYHAN

    Stone Arch Books is honored that we are included in Allison’s short list of publishers of sports stories. We choose our sports topics very carefully to make sure they are of interest to kids. We can see from your list that there are some more topics to consider in our publishing plan! Below is a list of all the sports we have covered in our publishing list: Baseball Basketball BMX Biking Cheerleading Fishing Football Go-Karting Hiking Hockey Hunting Lacross Motocross Racing Paintball Rock Climbing Running Skateboarding Snowboarding Soccer Softball Surfing Tennis Volleyball Wrestling Check out Jake Maddox, Rex Jones, Graphic Trax and Ridge Riders from Stone Arch Books for exciting sports fiction for all types of readers. We know how important it is to create stories that get kids to read, and with the help of your list we will include topics of interest to all readers. Krista Monyhan, Planning Editor, Stone Arch Books

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  15. dleo

    In the Laura Lippman Tess Monaghan books, Tess is a rower. Ms Lippman integrates this into her stories very well. (These are adult mysteries.)My kids were captains on the Crew team all through high school, and were honor graduates as well.

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  16. writeroffthelake

    I’m constantly yearning for middle-grade novels with with settings and characters involved in horse show jumping and horse shows. Not on an Olympic, or even international circuit level, but just the basic 4-H horse show level I so loved when I was a middle-grader and adolescent. Most of the horse books I’ve found, are based more around characters living with horses on a farm or ranch but seldom participating in shows or jumping events. And as far as adult novels with these settings, I can only think of a few (all well written).

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  17. Boxer

    Check out “The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas.” Powerful book narrated by the poet Simonides that overlays the 75th Olympiad with the Battle of Thermopylae.

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  18. Carri

    The main character in Heroes’ Day by Jesse Gordon (ISBN 978-0615220307) is an Olympic gymnast. The plot revolves around a young girl’s experiences on the women’s gymnastics team 100 years or so from now, though much of it is social and emotional rather than strictly sports.

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