What's more important, ambition or love? What happens when these two collide? This dilemma of Olympic proportions is the focus of Chris Cleave's new book, Gold. Documenting the lives of three Olympic track cyclists, the novel examines the tough choices competitive athletes have to face, especially when they're also parents with a seriously unwell child.
"It's a question that we all have to ask ourselves all the time. Every time we juggle our private life and our work, for example, we're asking ourselves that question," Cleave said from his home in the London suburbs.
"[With] these characters, if you push them to an extreme, they have to answer. It's at that edge where you have to make a big decision about your life that I find stories come alive. They become exciting when you force characters to choose," he said.
Kate and Jack's lives change forever when the young Sophie is diagnosed with leukaemia. A tough decision about the very essence of their competitive nature is revealed.
Cleave's two previous books, Incendiary (2005) and The Other Hand (published in 2008 and renamed Little Bee for the North American market), tackle the deep political issues of terrorism and immigration - two issues facing society in his native Britain. Incendiary won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award and was made into a major film starring Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor in 2008.
Gold is not the book Cleave expected to write when he set out to research characters for the novel.
"I came to the Olympics from the point of view of being quite cynical about them … what I thought I was going to do was write about how the Olympics are a cynical bid to make us all feel better about our decadent society, and I was going to follow the money trail and see who was getting rich out of it. It was almost going to be a crime novel set in the East End of London around the Olympic regeneration area," he said.
However, when he started to speak to competitive athletes about their sport, he found it "very hard to be cynical" about them.
"I found them incredibly inspiring people and I started to get really into the Olympic idea," he said.
Cleave became immersed in his research and began a tough regimen of track cycling. Two months into his strict schedule he fell seriously ill with an immune disorder. "I'd got to the point where I could ride 100 miles [160km] over hills really fast, and then a week later I couldn't get to the post box," he said, adding that his illness lasted for six months.
This first-hand experience with a serious illness showed Cleave how he wanted to write Gold.
"It was a real epiphany for me because it was at that point that I realised how much doing the training and getting involved in the sport had been a life-affirming experience … I wanted to weave this story about extreme fitness. I wanted to weave it through with this narrative about ill health.
"I suddenly realised that my argument was not with the Olympic movement or with the big trains of money that define how the Olympics are set up. My argument in the book is with death itself," he said.
As part of his research, Cleave followed a paediatric haematologist at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital who diagnoses and treats children with leukaemia. The author met the children and was present in consultations where parents were given their child's diagnosis. The experience wasn't as negative as he first thought it would be, however.
"I got to talk to kids who were getting better, I got to talk to kids who probably weren't getting better," he said.
"It wasn't the depressing experience I'd expected it to be. It really is an inspiring place and it's a place that's full of hope. It's a place where kids get better. Forty years ago, kids didn't recover from leukaemia."
Cleave will complete a London to Paris bike ride this month, in aid of the charity Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. The four-day, 500km ride is held regularly and is a closed-road event, allowing participants to cycle in safety. Cleave has so far raised £3,500 (Dh20,000) and he will match whatever is raised with his own money, doubling the donation.
"The medical research is really good, but it's really expensive and they just need money to fund it," he said. "It's money really well spent because you're saving kids' lives and it probably saves their families' lives as well. It's just the best money you can spend."