The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou. NeWest Press 2007.
The title of this 2011 Canada Reads entry brought to my mind a vague image of penned, abused animals. In fact, the book has nothing whatsoever to do with animals. It is a look at the world of elite athletes and their quest for Olympic success. The bone cage of the title is the human body or skeleton. The term is drawn from the epic poem Beowulf.
The Bone Cage revolves around two amateur athletes in the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Sadie is a 26-year-old swimmer who competes in the 800 meter event, while Tom, aka Digger, is a 30-year-old wrestler. Both are nearing the end of their careers, and they long for a final blaze of glory at the Olympics.
Every year that the Olympics roll around, the same questions are asked. Is it all worth the expense, the intrigue, the sacrifice? The Bone Cage is a thought-provoking look at these questions from the point of view of competing athletes. Abdou, a competitive swimmer herself, does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the experience of intensive training as you follow Sadie through her day and share her deep fatigue, constant aches and pains, the shock of the cold water early in the morning, the monotony and pleasure of swimming lengths. Abdou’s descriptions of the preparation for weigh-ins as wrestlers attempt to make their weight class give an eye-opening look at the extreme means employed to reach a desired end. The descriptions of matches, including the constant reek of sweat, bring the wrestling world to life. The question of steroid use is hinted at obliquely through a mention of other competitors known to use drugs. How do ‘clean’ competitors deal with this inequity?
Each athlete must decide for themself if the costs are worthwhile. Ultimately, whether they make it to the Olympics or not, whether they win or lose, each athlete reaches the end of a career that has occupied every waking moment of their life for years. Then what?
Both Angie and Digger are carded athletes, meaning they get financial support from the government while training for the Olympics. Andou doesn’t explain the carding process, but a quick check online indicates that an athlete must be ranked among the top 16 in the world or likely to achieve that level in order to qualify for money. The funds are meant to cover training costs rather than provide full support. Post-secondary education tuition is also covered, a major expense for most students. Both Sadie and Digger struggle to make ends meet. Sadie works at the University of Calgary gym, handing out towels, etc. to help with costs.
I couldn’t feel nearly as badly for these athletes as Abdou seems to. Sadie has a degree in English, presumably paid for by her carding funds. She lives at home with her parents, so her expenses must be low. It is repeatedly mentioned that both Sadie and Digger drive 13-year-old beaters, suggesting this is quite a hardship. Hmm. My daughter, who has been in the workforce for several years since graduating from university drives a 14-year-old hand-me-down vehicle that her parents bought used and drove for a number of years before passing it on. Digger’s car is a sports model purchased new for him by his father when he was just 17 years old. Lucky boy! He lives within minutes of the university where he spends most of his time, so presumably the car would have minimal mileage. Why would he even need a car?
Sadie has been swimming since the age of 4 and Digger attended wrestling camp while still in elementary school. Parents of athletes must be very dedicated and prepared to give up much time and money to support their aspiring athletes. No matter what support they have, an athlete (or any one who aspires to a challenging goal) must have a lot of talent and drive. No amount of parental cajoling is going to get someone to the Olympics. At 26 and 30, Sadie and Digger have certainly made the decision to continue with their sport themselves, yet both sets of parents are portrayed in a rather negative, unsympathetic light, which I found surprising.
I’ve often watched young gymnasts on TV and wondered what it must be like to be on top of the world at the age of 16. Where do you go from there? On the other hand, even if nothing exciting happens to them for the rest of their lives, they had their moment in the sun. They can always look back and say “I was a world-class competitor”. Most of us lead quiet lives quite devoid of that amazing pinnacle. Even if you have no real interest in the sports world, The Bone Cage is an engaging and thought-provoking novel and a good read.