Ladybird’s Olympic legacy

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While we dissect how wonderful London 2012 was from the chilly vantage point of January, there are no doubt many publishers licking their chapped lips. To accompany the multitudes of promotional, commemorative collections hastily slug on the shelves are the blockbuster autobiographies of the all-conquering athletes. Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie and Tom Daley are among those quick out of the blocks to share their stories, filling many a stocking. None of them are likely to rival their sporting triumphs in their lists of achievements.

But are these hastily cobbled books really a bad thing? Not everybody gets into reading by devouring Tolkien, hiding a torch under their duvet to finish the last chapter of Harry Potter or cuddling up to The Gruffalo. Sometimes a decidedly shoddy book can have a huge impact, such as the one discovered in my parents’ loft last month when retrieving the Christmas decorations.

It was 1996. A mobile library pulled up outside my primary school. I climbed its three steps casually and entered the van with little anticipation of what treasure I would find within.

It wasn’t even a story, let alone a novel. Just 53 pages long. Ladybird’s Olympic 96 book, complete with a “fantastic foldout of Atlanta”. Fantastic indeed. Inside I learned, in one paragraph, of the genius of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. I discovered that Atlanta is the state capital of Georgia. I found out the yachting events would be held at the Yachting Marina, which seemed very apt. WHATIZIT, the exquisitely named official mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games, was eager to supply all manner of juicy information.

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Further inside were single pages devoted to each Olympic sport, with descriptions of the discipline and its leading lights, plus – crucially – space within which to name the winner of each event. I filled them in with religious fervour. I recorded Yelena Nicolayeva’s victory in the 10 kilometre walk; I jotted down Balasz Kiss’s hammer win for Hungary; my pen was on the verge of running out as L Flessel triumphed in the individual foil fencing.

Aged nine, my parents didn’t allow me to watch most of these events take place live and even yours truly may have flagged during the weightlifting qualification rounds. Many of the winners’ names were furiously scribbled via Teletext. The long names of Ukraine’s medalling gymnasts proved too fast for my hand, resulting in several laps around the information retrieval service’s infuriating scrolling system.

Nevertheless, judiciously jotting the Olympic results down left an impression greater than the heroics of the standout athletes in Atlantic – even Michael Johnson achieving the 200m/400m double. The book ingrained a passion for sports stats that has since thrived in football, cricket and baseball, as well as a love of books. The next time the mobile library came around, I checked out The Hobbit, amongst others and was soon well on the way to filling my first bookshelves.

You could look up who won all of those 1996 Olympic medals on Wikipedia in about eight seconds now. But tracing their names with my finger in the old Ladybird hardback, their glories come to life far more vividly than on a laptop screen. There will be many legacies of London 2012. Let’s hope one of them, by hook or by crook or by terrible Tom Daley memoir, is somebody getting into books.

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