Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Olympic Reading: A review of The Price of Gold, a new book co-authored by Austin's own Ian Dille
by Kat Hunter
The Price of Gold is history told by the victor. Marty “The Blade” Nothstein, gold medalist in the 2000 Olympic Games, is revealed as a loveable bully, an athlete intensely proud of his body and what it can do, a man who’s so obsessed with Olympic gold that he’s willing to do anything to get it. He’s ambitious, cocky, self-absorbed, aggressive, ruthless, overwhelmingly full of himself at times...and not quite apologetic about any of it. In sum, he’s a 210-pound recipe for success on the velodrome.
Comparing himself to his great-grandfather, who was a bike racer and bare-knuckle boxer, Nothstein writes, “Like him, I’m compelled not just to compete and win, but to assert my superiority. I don’t crave the adulation of others. I don’t care if I’m loved or despised. But I need to be the best, and I need everyone to know it.”
Track racing is an inseparable mix of intimidation and muscle, cleverness, and insane speed. Unlike the bony, lean-muscled endurance athletes of road cycling, track cyclists are thick-necked, beefy weight lifters. They boast cross-hatched scars and earn nicknames like “the Outlaw” and “Bones.” In the 200-meter match sprint, two opponents stalk each other for three laps like wary bears; in most cases, the win is decided by a short and ferocious sprint to the line on the final lap at speeds over 40mph. This is Nothstein’s signature event, though he also wins championships in the keirin, kilo, and team sprint competitions and later races on a professional road team.
The Price of Gold explains the intricacies of track racing in a way that’s comprehensible even to the uninitiated. Turning the pages, the reader experiences Nothstein’s progression from punk kid to world-class athlete, his cycling future shaped in part by luck and random generosity. He grows up in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, home to a renowned velodrome incongruously plunked in the heart of farm country in 1974. When Nothstein is 14, his punishment for throwing rocks at a neighbor’s garage is to join the neighbor’s junior track racing program. There his talent is recognized, and a contingent of tough-skinned, washed-up track cyclists takes him under their wing, giving him not only the experience and training to race well, but also instilling a sense of purpose and entitlement. When he wins silver at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, it’s not good enough for Marty Nothstein.
In the early 1900s, track racing was wildly popular in the US; track cyclist Frank Louis Kramer earned more than baseball stars like Ty Cobb. Today, the Olympics are the be-all and end-all of track cycling, its Tour de France. “The Games are the only time the best in the world come together, and everyone in the world watches,” Nothstein writes. Track racing is not unique in this regard, of course. For many sports, Olympic gold is the pinnacle of achievement. Athletes have an opportunity to compete at this level only once every four years – maybe two or three chances in a lifetime – and must perform at their best, whether they’re having a bad day, caught the stomach flu, or, like Nothstein, got knocked down on a training ride by Christian Vande Velde three days before competition. The pressure is enough to break a normal person in half.
Exploring the single-minded determination and oftentimes unhealthy obsession required to be an Olympic athlete, The Price of Gold details a work ethic beyond what any sane person would deem reasonable. After his silver medal in Atlanta, Nothstein etches No. 1 into his mind. He must end his workout at 51 miles, not 50, must pump 11 gallons of gas, not 9. The narrative is almost entirely focused on Nothstein’s training and competition, only briefly alluding to his personal life, but his preparation for Sydney leaves little room for anything else. Nothstein cites the emotional and physical distance from his family as one of his biggest sacrifices.
Those who might expect the airing of dirty sheets, given the ongoing drug scandals in the sport, will be disappointed: the book makes no mention of cycling’s doping controversies, past or present. But some less-than-savory stories do emerge, including the disintegration of the Dallas-based EDS track team and the discovery that the team manager had embezzled $1 million in funds. Most of the drama that Nothstein describes, however, takes place as competition on the track.
The content is as well written as it is interesting. Vivid descriptions bring the reader into the heat of battle with the greatest sprinters of the time, an inside look at the diving and hooking and headbutting, slowing down the blur just enough to witness and understand the import of each move. Watching online videos of the races later – you’ll find yourself compelled to do this – you recognize who’s who immediately. Jens Fiedler, his artful goatee, small round helmet, and menacing dark glasses. Florian Rousseau, the “pre-race histrionics” when he snorts and bares his teeth like a rabid goat. Curt Harnett, who Nothstein calls a golden retriever to Darryn Hill’s pit bull, is easily marked by his flowing blonde hair – “He’s even appeared in shampoo commercials. He’s subdued. Docile. Canadian.”
This is the beauty of writing, of remembered history, of shared experience – you were there, with Marty, briefly you were Marty, when he endured the injuries and high-speed crashes and grueling workouts, when he rode his heart out in the semifinal and final rounds in Sydney against the best in the world, when he picked up his 5-year-old son and took a victory lap around the track after achieving, at last, the dream of gold.
Attend The Price of Gold Launch Party at Bicycle Sport Shop on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 6-8 p.m. Reading and signing by Ian Dille, plus complimentary beer and appetizers. RSVP here.