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Wendy has no hesitation in saying that the highlight of her career so far is winning a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. There are, however, two tales within this amazing story. The first is the fairy tale of the young woman who rides her pony club horse at the Olympics and wins a gold medal. The second is the tale of Wendy breaking her leg nine weeks out from the Olympic Games. Thanks to grit, determination, and a metal plate and several screws keeping her leg together she still rode at the Olympic Games and won the gold medal. Put the two tales together and you have a story worthy of an Oscar.

One thing that struck me after I came to Australia was how much pride the country takes in its deserving athletes. Partly this made an impression on me, because growing up I was not aware of much of a sports culture in my country. Yes everyone I knew was mad about soccer, but these were English clubs they were supporting. Also the money simply was not available for proper sporting facilities for hopeful Olympians. Saying that though, I did grow up in the same town as Michelle Smith, Rathcool. I even caught the same bus to school as equestrian Cian O’Connor.

So often it appears as if the spectacle of sporting events, seemingly always occuring in some stadium in a foreign land, causes us to forget that these are ordinary people, from ordinary places, which was why I enjoyed the personal perspectives offered by An Eventful Life: Life Stories of Eventing Champions.

In her opening foreward publisher Debbie Higgs asserts that [this] is not just a book for fans of equestrian sports – it is a book for anyone interested in how people with extraordinary talent and perseverance can become Olympic champions. This for me is the real heart of the book. Too often the careers of sportsmen are forced into a global historical narrative. This book instead concentrates on the personal.

Alison Duthie presents a series of journalistic profiles of several Australian Olympians. A welcome addition to the selection of sportspeople is young up-and-comer Emma Scott. The book’s appendix lists an impressive selection of appearances by Scott on the equestrian circuit since 2007. The other professional horse-riders who partake of eventing have already experienced a whole series of highs and lows across the world. Emma Scott’s story has not yet truly begun.

The book’s subjects are Megan Jones, Sonja Johnson, Shane Rose, Wendy Schaeffer and Stuart Tinney. Collectively they can hold claim to an incredible assortment of medals and prizes. We learn how each of them first came to the sport, often with the generous help of family members and friends, as well as the experiences they shared with the horses that carried them to victory. One of the book’s strengths is that the relationship between horse and rider is emphasised through the testimonies of these athletes. They speak of them as animal friends, or even colleagues of a kind, but never dismissively as ‘beasts’.

The level of dedication and determination required by the sport can also bring a dangerous cost with it. The quote I chose to open this piece gives an example of the extraordinary lengths Wendy Schaeffer was willing to go to in order to attend the Olympics despite serious injury. Shane Rose had to undergo major reconstructive surgery after he was struck in the face by a horse. While escaping injury himself, Stuart Tinney’s horse Jeepster leaped into the crowd of onlookers at Badminton in 1999. That all of these athletes would continue on despite the harships and occasional mishaps of a life in professional sports shows just how dedicated they are to equestrianism. Many have even become trainers of the next generation themselves.

Writer Alison Duthie herself trained in the sport and her familiarity helps convey the personal stories told here with an added degree of insight. There is even a wonderful collection of photographs included at the end of each chapter, illustrating the careers of these men and women. The tone of the book is both warm and enthusiastic, enough to encourage the interest of anyone, regardless of their interest in the field.

Well told, insightful and fascinating. A genuine treat.

With thanks to Palmer Higgs Publishing.

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“Them that fought wide open didn’t last no tim, ‘specially among the heavies. The padded cell and paper-doll cut-outs for most of ’em. It don’t stand to reason a human skull can stand up under the beatin’s it gets like that.”

Oh dear. It appears that I have aged overnight. Yes, my thirty-second year on this blue ball has begun.

Already I can feel my body becoming more decrepid, the toll of old age setting in, my memory growing foggy. Actually, scratch all that. I feel fine! What’s more I woke up this morning to some lovely bookish birthday presents from Stephanie, which I am sure I will be reviewing on here shortly.

In an unusual manner, today’s book echoes my oscillating mood this morning. Robert E. Howard evidenced a fascination with physical prowess in his Conan novels, among others, but in The Iron Man he focuses on the damage that can be done to a body.  Ultimately, however, the book’s theme is a far more daunting contest between the limits of human endurance and the salvation offered by true love.

Howard’s narrator first witnesses Mike Brennon fighting against a carnival act in Nevada. The young man shows a great capacity for taking pain and throwing wide, powerful blows, but no real technical aptitude for boxing. As it turns out, Howard’s first person narrator is Steve Amber, a fight manager, who is at first rebuffed by Brennon. Then the intense boxer seeks him out months later with a renewed passion for professional contests. Never one to pass up a good opportunity, Amber puts him into training. He is dismayed to note that Brennon seems incapable of developing any real pugilist skills. His stamina and natural strength are his only real advantages, certainly not enough to justify sending him into a bout against a first-rate fighter. Nevertheless Brennon insists. His desire to win real prize money concerns Amber, as his rookie contender seems willing to put himself through any amount of punishment in order to make some cash.

When Brennon gets into the ring with Monk Barota though, Amber and his partner Ganlon realize that they have no ordinary fighter, but a real Iron Man. He cannot even feel his opponents punches, his body numb to the pain that Barota is undoubtedly causing.

“Bat Nelson true to life!” he whispered, his voice vibrating with excitement. “The crowd thinks, and Barota thinks, them left hooks is hurtin’ Mike – but he ain’t even feelin’ ’em.”

From absolute no-hoper Brennon is catapulted onto the national boxing scene as a star, a modern day Iron Man, capable of outlasting any opponent. True he does lose some fights on points, but he is seemingly incapable of being knocked out. Amber grows increasingly concerned though, as to why his fighter’s seeming greed for money never abates. His behaviour seems miserly and obsessive, a dangerous combination as over three years Brennon begins to slow down even more. He is compelled to continue fighting, despite Amber’s warnings that he risks not only serious injury, but a complete mental breakdown.

Howard captures the desperation and excitement of the early twentieth century boxing scene, but also the gradual fade from showmanship into sadistic bouts of bloodletting. Brennon rarely emerges from a fight not looking like tenderized raw meat. His obsession with fighting risks his health and all in the name of attracting bigger crowds, bigger pay cheques. Howard appears to be describing the actions of a near-mindless masochist – until that is, the story’s twist is revealed.

The writing itself seems anachronistic, but then The Iron Man makes no pretense at realism. This is the kind of story where a character in a moment of passion will exclaim ‘Applesauce!’, as opposed to a more vulgar expression. It also has a welcome beating heart full of sentimentality hidden beneath the bruised and torn flesh of the fighters.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It captures the thrill of boxing, but not without a critical aside on the physical toll levied by the sport. A very enjoyable yarn.

As the Olympics descend upon China, the critiques have begun. Already we are hearing stories of more than 1.5 million “displacements” to clear space for Olympic facilities, reports of human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and Olympics-related graft. The spotlight will naturally be on China, but China is only part of the story. The modern Olympic Movement itself has been highly controversial – and far from the ‘above politics’ Olympian level that some would have us believe.

If you follow the British press, you may have caught mope-rock singer Morrissey’s latest controversial outburst against the treatment of animals in China. Simon Armitage’s interview can be found here and further comment on the accusation of the Chinese being a ‘subspecies’, here. While Morrissey’s statement is reprehensible, racism at its most dismissive and insidious, it also brings to mind the inherent problems in criticising China itself. The former singer of The Smiths probably knows the only way he can draw attention to his cause – animal welfare – is to be deliberately provocative, because the international community is quite aware of the many civil liberties abuses that occur within China, from forced detention of political subversives, to internet censorship and widespread poverty.

None of that matters though, because China is the future world superpower on the rise. Its story of a massive economic recovery following military incursions by Japan and the disastrous Maoist experiment with industrialisation in the twentieth century would be no less remarkable had the eventual result not been China becoming a major world player. Their position within the international community is consequently very important to the Chinese government and so hosting the Olympic Games represented a major opportunity to woo popular opinion in their favour. In short, the potential profits earned by investment in China outweigh any moral outrage that may be occasioned by foreign criticism.

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects relating to China’s bid to host the Olympics in 2008. The writers include foreign journalists, from sports, economics and political writing, as well as former Chinese political detainees. There is even a photo-essay displaying the hardship faced by construction workers who live and work in Beijing, often having travelled away from far-off provinces to provide for their families.

The quote above is taken from an illuminating essay by Dave Zirin on the dubious history of the Olympic Games. One of the complaints of Chinese government officials in the face of calls for a boycott of the Games (similar to the efforts made to hobble the Soviet Union’s hosting following their invasion of Afghanistan) was that critics were unfairly mixing politics with sports. Zirin shows how political manoeuvring is an essential element of hosting the Games, as the display of competitive prowess is not only inevitably bound up with nationalism, but also provides a platform for host nations. International Olympics Committee president Avery Brundage for example, who supported Adolf Hitler, which he never apologised for, and turned a blind eye to the sins of participating Apartheid nations. He also fervently objected to female athletes entering the games.

The financial cost of hosting the Games is repeatedly stressed. Host cities Montreal and Athens are cited as examples of how crippling debt can often result, with the attendant civil disruption adding salt to the wounds. The welfare of inadequately protected construction workers was also put at risk in the building of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, as well as other Olympic structures erected just for the purposes of capturing the lens of foreign cameras. Homes were demolished to make way for much of this development, such as the aging hutong residences, whose owners were turfed out with little compensation.

For China the Games represented an opportunity to erase the spectre of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Arguments in favour of their bid included citations of the positive social changes that followed the Seoul Games in South Korea. However, this conciliatory move on the part of the international community only served to give China exactly what it wanted. Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’, op-ed piece caused a domino effect that increased pressure on China to review its policy of investment in Darfur, but a broader social change was always unlikely.

There are two Chinas, the one we are allowed to see and the one the Chinese live with. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of essays on that schism.

At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.

We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.

I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.

What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.

The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.

The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.

Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –

What we knew

What we understood

Had no beautiful language at its service

Lacked for artists and sculptors

What we knew was intimate

As instinct or memory

That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.

Wonderful.

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