One-Minute Book Reviews

August 21, 2008

Australia Was the Best Modern Olympic Host (Quote of the Day / ‘The Olympic Games’)

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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If the International Olympic Committee gave awards for hosting the summer games of the past quarter century, China would deserve the booby prize for embarrassments that began with lip sync-ing at the opening ceremony and keep unfolding. What country was the best recent host? The editors of The Olympic Games: Athens 1896–Athens 2004 (DK, 2004) vote for Australia:

“The Sydney 2000 Games were one of the greatest success stories in Olympic history. Over 10,000 athletes from 200 countries delivered the ultimate sporting even in a suberb venue.

“At the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Games, outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Juan Antonio Samaranch declared to the host nation, ‘I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever.’ Quite a plaudit, but one few would argue with. Everything seemed perfect – the organization, the athletic performance, the setting, the climate …

“The only blot on the Sydney Games was the rash of athletes removed after failing drugs tests – a record total of 35. However, it is undeniable that the Sydney Games were the high watermark of the modern Olympics, and something that future Olympic hosts will have to live up to.”

This comment comes from a publisher that, though well-respected, is based in London www.dk.com. Do you agree with the editors? Or do you think their comments show a Commonwealth bias?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 20, 2008

‘Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila’ – A Portrait of the First African to Win a Gold Medal at the Olympics

Filed under: African American,Biography,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:32 pm
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The band couldn’t find the Ethiopian national anthem when a former bodyguard for Haile Selassie became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the signature event of the Olympics

Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila. By Paul Rambali. Serpent’s Tail, 315 pp., $20, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This is a very strange book about the first African to win a gold medal at the Olympics and the man some regard as the greatest marathoner of all time. Born in rural Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila served as a bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie before running barefoot to his first gold medal at the Rome games in 1960. Four years later, wearing shoes and socks in Tokyo, Bikila became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the marathon:

“Bikila was so euphoric that it mattered not if the band could not find the score for the Ethiopian national anthem … and played the Japanese anthem instead,” David Miller writes in Athens to Athens.

Journalist Paul Rambali tells Bikila’s story in a book that its publisher bills as a biography but that reads more like a novelization. From the first sentence onward, Rambali uses the literary device of limited omniscient narration: He goes inside Bikila’s head and, in alternating chapters, that of his coach, Onni Niskanen, and describes thoughts he appears to have had no way of knowing.

This device might have worked beautifully in a brief children’s biography, an art form that allows more leeway for the technique. As it is, too much of Barefoot Runner defies belief for a work labeled “nonfiction.”

Bikila died of a brain hemorrhage in his early 40s, which may help to explain why no definitive biography of him has appeared, nearly a half century after he struck gold in Rome. But lesser athletes have had better books written about them. The world will owe a debt to anyone who gives this great Olympian the great biography he deserves.

Best line: Rambali explains why Bikila ran barefoot in Rome, though he provides no source for it. He says that when Bikila, among other runners, went to the Adidas stand in the Olympic village to get shoes, there were no shoes that fit him: “His big toes were too large and his outside toes too small. ‘They’re almost ingrown,’ said the Adidas man. He was curious about Abebe’s feet and said he had never seen anything like them: the soles and heels were as hard as corns! He told the major [Onni Niskanen] they had given away 1,500 pairs of shoes and they had hardly any left … They couldn’t find a pair of shoes anywhere that Abebe was comfortable with and finally the major had decided that, since there wouldn’t be time to properly break in a new pair, Abebe would race barefoot.”

Worst line: “The old women shouted questions at him as he passed. He was always running, it was true. If he didn’t answer them, it wasn’t because he was out breath, for he was never out of breath.” This early comment sets the tone for the rest of the book. Has the world ever had a distance runner who was “never out of breath”?

Published: June 2007 www.serpentstail.com/book?id=10906

Furthermore: A recent review in the Guardian says that Tim Judah takes a more journalistic approach to Bikila’s life in his Bikila: Ethiopia’s Marathon Champion (Reportage Press, 2008), which doesn’t appear to have reached the U.S. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/27/sportandleisure?gusrc=rss&feed=books, and provides a useful comparison of that book and Barefoot Runner.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 15, 2008

Why ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is Bad Poetry and Other Literary Thoughts on the Olympics

Random literary thoughts on the Olympics:

1. Michael Phelps’s underwater dolphin kick is sports poetry.

2. NBC should fire the swimming analyst who keeps saying “he has swam” (as in “he has swam much better than this”).

3. The first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Oh”) is an example of the literary device known as anacrusis, a lead-in syllable or syllables that precede the first full foot.

4. The national anthem is written in anapestic meter, Dr. Seuss’s favorite. (What, you’ve never noticed the similarity between “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and “I meant what I said / and I said what I meant …”?)

5. Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” bad poetry? Take in the last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In a good poem, words are not interchangeable. You can’t switch them around with no loss in meaning or effect, because everything in the poem essential. Apart from a rhyme, what would the national anthem lose if Francis Scott Key had written “home of the free and the land of the brave” instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 13, 2008

How Do Gymnasts Know When They’re Ready to Do Those Really Scary Routines? (Quote of the Day – Mary Lou Retton via Dave Anderson)

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:36 am
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How do gymnasts know when they’re ready to do one of those white-knuckle routines we saw last night in the women’s gymnastics final? Mary Lou Retton, who won the gold medal in the women’s all-around at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, once said:

“If you’re a gymnast, someone should be able to sneak up and drag you out of bed at midnight and push you out onto some strange floor, and you should be able to do your entire routine sound asleep in your pajamas. Without one mistake.”

As quoted by Dave Anderson in The Story of the Olympics (Morrow Junior Books, 1996), with a foreword by Carol Lewis. Written by a Pulitzer Prize–winning sportswriter for the New York Times, this excellent introduction to the Olympics for ages 9 and up came out in a revised an expanded edition from HarperCollins in 2000, shown at left.

During the Olympics, One-Minute Book Reviews will post occasional quotes from books that give context to the sports taking center stage in Beijing. These posts will appear in addition to the usual reviews. The quotes are intended partly to guide you to good books that you may want to read during or after the Olympics.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 12, 2008

Gymnastics Is a ‘Contact Sport’ (Quote of the Day / Jennifer Sey in ‘Chalked Up’)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. National Gymnastics Champion, argues in her new memoir Chalked Up that gymnastics is a contact sport:

“In football, it’s another player who crushes, bruises, breaks the athlete. In gymnastics, it’s the floor. Or the beam. Or any piece of unmoving, unforgiving equipment that meets the body on its descent through the air from great heights.”

From Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams (Morrow, 289 pp., $24.95). For more on the book, see Sey’s site www.jennifersey.com and this review www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/02. Read an excerpt from Chalked Up here www.jensey.com/excerpt.htm.

[During the Olympics, One-Minute Book Reviews post, in addition to reviews, frequent quotes about marquee events in Beijing. These quotes will generally come from good books about sports. Another comment about women's gymnastics will appear later today.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 10, 2008

Has Volleyball Arrived as an Olympic Sport? (Quote of the Day / Paul Sunderland via Dave Anderson)

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:54 pm
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Volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964 but didn’t come into its own in the U.S. until Karch Kiraly drove the American team to gold medals in 1984 and 1988. Even then, it had a narrower appeal than marquee sports such as swimming and track. Has volleyball finally arrived as an Olympic sport? If not, when will it have emerged from the margins? One answer came from Paul Sunderland, a member of the 1984 U.S. team:

“It won’t have arrived until the people who see us in an airport stop asking us what basketball team we play for.”

As quoted by Dave Anderson in The Story of the Olympics (Morrow Junior Books, 1996), with a foreword by Carol Lewis. Written by a Pulitzer Prize–winning sportswriter for the New York Times, this excellent introduction to the Olympics for ages 9 and up came out in a revised an expanded edition from HarperCollins in 2000, shown at left.

[During the Olympics, One-Minute Book Reviews will post occasional quotes from books that give context to the sports taking center stage in Beijing. These quotes will appear in addition to the usual reviews.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 2, 2008

Jennifer Sey’s Memoir of Her Brutal Life As a Gymnast, ‘Chalked Up’

A former gymnastics champion recalls the hazards of her sport, including coaches who shouted at girls, “You’re a fat pig!”

Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. By Jennifer Sey. Morrow, 289 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Girls’ sports have had legal equality for more than three decades, but they still have nothing close to parity at bookstores. There are probably hundreds of good books about football, baseball and golf for every good book about gymnastics, figure-skating and youth soccer. The number of coffee-table books about golf alone might dwarf the number of books about girls’ sports.

This pattern doesn’t result from a conspiracy but from a cultural reality. Large numbers of female athletes haven’t been around for long enough for the books to catch up with them. Men were playing professional baseball for more than a century before Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four. Another generation or two may have to pass before all bookstores and libraries have worthy books about female athletes in every sport.

All the more reason, then, to welcome Chalked Up, an unusually thoughtful and intelligent memoir by the 1986 U.S. National Gymnastics Champion Jennifer Sey. This isn’t just a good book about gymnastics – it’s one of the best recent books about female athletes in any sport.

Much of what Sey has to say will be familiar to anyone who has read Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and other exposés of abuses in gymnastics. Judges play favorites. Parents overinvest in their daughters’ successes. Coaches commit physical and emotional abuse, and doctors support them. Even the youngest female gymnasts may have powerful incentives to develop eating disorders and risk permanent damage to their health by competing with serious injuries.

But Chalked Up is unique for the maturity that Sey brings to bear on these issues. After beginning to compete at the age of six, she had grueling career, winning the national championship less than a year after breaking a femur in competition. Now, in her late 30s, she is old enough to have some perspective on her experiences but not so old that her memories of the pain have faded beyond retrieval.

Sey sees the harm done by the coaches who taunted girls, as she says they did at Bela Karolyi’s camp in Houston, with “You’re a fat pig!” and other insults. But she hasn’t written a polemic. Instead, she shows how gymnastics started out as fun and gradually took over her family’s life. Many factors kept her in the sport — her own drive and love of performing, her ability to find kind coaches who helped to offset the others’ abuse, her parents’ willingness to ignore signs of trouble. Although she never got to the Olympics, the cost of her participation emerges in final chapters that list the chilling health problems that she still has.

Yet Set misses gymnastics – or parts of it – every day. Years after she quit the sport, she watched the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug collapsed on her first vault and did a second that helped the U.S. team win a gold medal. It rankled that some broadcasters praised Strug as unique. “Any girl on that team,” Sey says, “would have done the same thing.”

Best line: Sey argues that gymnastics is a contact sport, like football, in which the body is constantly colliding with objects with brutal force: “In football, it’s another player who crushes, bruises, breaks the athlete. In gymnastics, it’s the floor. Or the beam. Or any piece of unmoving, unforgiving equipment that meets the body on its descent through the air from great heights.”

Worst line: When Sey was about eight years old, she saw Saturday Night Fever. She says she was struck by a character whose well-developed body got her into trouble: “After seeing this R-rated movie with my parents, I linked a developing body to danger and unwanted male attention.” That’s a pretty sophisticated perception for an eight-year-old.

Recommendation? A book with crossover appeal, written for adults but likely to appeal also to many teenagers.

Editor: Jennifer Pooley

Published: May 2008 www.jennifersey.com and www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: A graduate of Stanford University, Sey lives in San Francisco.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

Would you like to share a literary discovery or warn others about an overrated book? Join the conversation on the Ruthless Book Club, the online reading group for people who don’t like reading groups www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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