Let the Games Begin

One of the cool things about freelancing is that I sometimes get an assignment to write on a topic about which I know nothing.  Some of you may remember the book about commercial fishing I wrote a few years ago.  (And some of you gave me invaluable feedback—gracias.)  That was an intensive research project, let me tell you.  My current project is a lot easier: I’m writing a very short hi-lo book on Olympic athletes.


In the educational publishing industry, “hi-lo” means high interest, low reading level.  Older kids who don’t read well need reading material that doesn’t frustrate them but holds their interest.  No 4th or 8th or 10th grader wants to read about Dick and Jane and Spot.  But they dig sports.


Granted, on my personal list of interests, sports rank just below swine herding, but I can muster up a little enthusiasm when the occasion calls for it.  I did turn on the TV and watch Michael Phelps blow everyone else out of the water.  And I’ve heard of a number of other Olympians.  Plus, I have a library card.  So I’m all set to write about athletes.


The first question was, which athletes?  After some wrangling with my editor, I finally settled on: Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michelle Kwan, Karnam Malleswari, Apolo Ohno, and Shaun White. 


Next question: what to say about these people?


Because I don’t really care about sports, I’m far more fascinated by the cultural and political issues that have often surrounded the Games and the athletes.  African-American athlete Jesse Owens, for example, is remembered today not because he won a bunch of medals in track and field in Berlin, 1936, but because he wiped up the track with Hitler’s Aryan runners.    


The development of children into world-class athletes also makes for gripping stories.  I learned today that speed skating phenom Apolo Ohno displayed such talent that a coach went to great lengths to get him admitted to an elite training school at age 13, even though the school did not take youngsters under 15.  Problem: Apolo, who had been running with gang boys and staying out nights, didn’t want to go.  His father dropped him off at SeaTac airport and drove away, thinking the boy would get on a flight to New York.  Apolo phoned one of his homeboys to come pick him up.  He was on the loose for days or weeks before finally showing up at Dad’s house again. 


You would think that after those shenanigans, the coach and the elite skating school would want nothing to do with Apolo.  You might think that Apolo’s dad would wonder if forcing his son into intensive training in his early teens was the right thing to do.  In fact, the school and coach still took him.  Dad got on the plane and escorted him to New York.  And a few years later, Apolo skated gold while thousands and thousands of fans chanted his name.  Tell me, friends, did his dad do right?


Another thing I wonder is how authors decide which athletes to feature in their books.  I picked up one called The Olympics: Unforgettable Moments of the Games.  I read through the 1988 and 1992 chapters, looking for info about Jackie Joyner-Kersee, regarded by many as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.  Nada.  How could the author leave her out? 


Who would you put in a book?



12 thoughts on “Let the Games Begin

  1. If I were writing for 8th and 10th grade boys, the book would be about Olympic beach volleyball players. Not sure any of them really have a “story” that would be interesting, but the subject matter might appeal to the reader on another level.   And Shaun White, because he is awesome. But, from a purely historical perspective, I like your list. What about the Dream Team – that might be an interesting story – pros playing in the olympics. Or maybe a hockey guy or two. Now I am blogging in your comments. Sorry.Apolo is on your google ad.

  2. Mark Spitz?  Swimming?   If you want the average teenage boy’s attention write about the most violent extreme sports.  Boxing, football and stupid stunts on Jackass.  Oh, and don’t forget wrestling. There’s nothing like Hulk Hogan slamming somebody’s head into the floor a few hundred times, to really keep them interested.

  3. I am not a sports fan, but for me the Olympics transcends sport.  I have always loved the games and all the schmaltzy stories that go along with them.  These names immediately come to mind (along with many of the ones you mentioned): Mary Lou Rhetton, Dan Jansen, Greg Louganis, Brian Boitano.

  4. I think Brian Boitano, but just because he was on the original south park short…  What would Brian Boitano do?  (catchy tune!)I think your list is great.  I am also not a fan of sports, but I am a fan of highlights, and that’s kind of what the Olympics are, right?  I haven’t watched them since high school, though, so I am no help. I do remember the Tonya Harding fiasco.  I remember Mary Lou Rhetton and Nadia Komineche (am too lazy to look up how to spell her name)…  I also think Michael Phelps got a total raw deal on the drug stuff – I think the world is filled with hypocrites on so many levels.Well, that’s enough rambling from ME for one day.Oh, you are SO RIGHT, by the way.  Why ARE mothers of small children always so close to rage? I am not normally (normal being the 28 years I lived before having small children) so ANGRY.  Is it hormones? Situational? Why can I not just be amused by my wonderful husband and enjoy his company? Why must I become so ANGRY at every little thing he does?  Poor guy.  Clearly, though, from the responses, this is not an isolated issue.  I loved your comment, though.

  5. I think your list is good, but what do I know?  I do think it’s good to have some chronological coverage, as you do.  I also like the challenge of sometimes writing about new things about which I know nothing!  I recently wrote two chapters of a textbook on African American history, though, so I had a chance to research and write about some Olympic atheltes – Joyner-Kersee and Shani Davis, in particular.   What about gymnasts?  Or other figure skaters?  The thing with any list is that it will never be comprehensive and someone will always be left out.  oh well.  

  6. @DrTiff – I just read that book yesterday!  Another cool  thing about Jesse O–when asked how he felt about Hitler leaving the stadium to avoid congratulating Owens and Metcalfe, Jesse said “I didn’t go to Berlin to shake hands with Hitler.”  Dude had class.

  7. Don’t forget to include that James Cleveland (real middle name) Owens actually moved to Cleveland at age 9 and started his career in junior and high school here.   How’s that for irony?   Sticking it to Hitler really made his rep.  Also consider David Berger, American olympic weightlifter on the 1972 Israeli team who was killed by terrorists in Munich.   

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