One man or one woman combats the odds to climb the Olympic summit—isn't it such a lovely old tale? It's a lie, of course. It takes a village to raise a gold medalist.
Widen the frame of the camera focused on our lonely Olympian, and you'll see the others at the base of the mountain: the devoted spouse, the sacrificing parent, the never-say-die coach. Behind them, there's often the community that steps forward to offer a sponsorship or a convenient job, and usually a whole nation providing funds, training camps, equipment, scientists and psychologists. Thanks to them, our hero's allowed to indulge in the phenomenal selfishness and single-mindedness necessary to become the best in the world and make us all feel wonderful. It's a good deal all around.
Imagine an Olympian giving most of that up. Imagine him ending up in a place far from his home and support system, a place he'd never been in his life, and depending completely on one person, his spouse...who ends up deciding to do the exact same selfish, single-minded thing. What do you get when two people who sleep in the same bed try to become the best in the world in the very same event, in the very same Olympics?
A love story.
Let's start where they started. Let's begin the most harrowing quest of the Sydney Games back in 1992, with a strikingly tall, blond, handsome, wide-shouldered teenage boy who's staring at a strikingly tall, blonde, beautiful, willowy teenage girl as she flies down the straightaway during a 4 x 400-meter relay at a junior international track meet in Bressanone, Italy. "She is nice looking, yes?" asks his coach, Alex Parnov.
"Oh, yes," says Viktor Chistiakov.
"Go meet her. You should try to make something with her."
The boy's a taker, so why shouldn't he take her, too? He has the looks, size, intelligence, talent and blood for any task. He's the son of a man who ran the 110-meter hurdles in two Olympics and was coach of the Soviet track and field team in another, and of a woman who earned Olympic bronze in the 400 meters. When Viktor wants a girl at the sports school he attends in Moscow, he climbs up knotted bedsheets and takes one. If a cleaning man tries to tidy up the track while he's training, he threatens to go to the director and take away the worker's job. He's the life of every party, a boy who radiates the appetite and arrogance his coach cultivates: Don't bend. Take what you want. It's yours. No matter what height they set the pole vault bar at in junior meets, it seems the 17-year-old takes that, too.