A.M. Lightner’s 1967’s The Space Olympics is a standalone juvenile-SF novel.
Herding merinolas1 with his dog Wolf has allowed young Tyros Vann to spend a lot of time throwing things for his dog to retrieve. This hobby makes Tyros of considerable interest to Barnum Winkle, space trader. Winkle has a dream, a dream to which young people like Tyros could be the key.
It all has to do with the brand-new Space Olympics.
The world Arcadia is unsuitable for industrial development and has been set aside as a park world. The Arcadians have decided to capitalize on tourism and sports tourism in particular: they will host interstellar sports events inspired by the ancient Olympics. The first games, held three years ago, were a success. The second event is coming up. Barnum is determined to deliver a team of athletes to compete.
Tyros’ adopted home-world Permia is a fair example of the worlds in Permia’s sector of the Pleiades cluster. The high-gravity world is too undeveloped to provide a whole team. But it can provide at least one athlete, as Tyros has all the makings of a fine discus thrower. The other worlds of the sector probably have other such athletes. Barnum is travelling from planet to planet, scouting local talent for his sector team.
With the permission of his parents, Tyros sets out on the second space flight of his life2. Barnum’s quest to find noteworthy athletes on the worlds of the Pleiades is entirely successful. Despite the best efforts of his high-spirited kids to die in youthful hijinks on alien worlds, Barnum delivers his team to Arcadia.
The Arcadians are enthusiastic about allowing everyone — well, every human, as aliens, even Arcadia’s natives, are barred — to compete. Tyros soon discovers that the Arcadians are far less enthusiastic about permitting off-worlders to win. A local gambler tries to bribe Tyros to lose. When Tyros turns him down, higher-ups try to stop him by upping his handicap. He’s handicapped due to coming from a high-gravity world. It’s only fair that athletes from low-gravity worlds should also have a chance. But the handicap that Tyros is given is much greater than it should be. It’s unfair.
And if Tyros somehow manages to win despite bribes and unfair handicaps? Well, the Arcadians are very creative when it comes to ensuring that their games have the proper outcomes.
There is, of course, very little chance that there would be habitable worlds orbiting the bright, massive, extremely short-lived stars in the Pleiades, but Lightner is hardly the first author to make that mistake.
Why are Arcadia’s natives barred? Because the humans who commandeered the world are worried that they’d win. Providentially for the humans, the locals are very good natured about sharing their world with such unhospitable neighbours.
Barnum’s approach to gathering a team seems pretty half-assed because it is. He’s pretty limited in his ability to find each world’s star athletes. The primary quality each team member must have is proximity to the world’s starport. If it happens the best athlete is someone who for whatever reason is on the other side of the planet, he’s never going to learn about them. Still, it is very early days in Arcadia’s games. If the games survive as an institution, then someone can build on Barnam’s fledgling efforts to exploit the sector’s teen athletes.
Lightner’s books featured in my youth less because her books were especially wonderful and more because for some reason every school I went to had one or two of them in their libraries. Perhaps this was because under the name Alice L. Hopf, Lightner was a successful non-fiction writer. Although that would require librarians to have known that Hopf and Lightner were one and the same, which seems unlikely. So it’s a mystery.
This book is a fair example of her oeuvre: it’s competent but unremarkable. Well, except for the fact that the powers-that-be seem to be utterly corrupt. It doesn’t matter that Tyros is a good guy and a great athlete; it doesn’t matter that the Arcadian natives are sentient beings, if not human; the Arcadian humans will tweak the rules to ensure their guys win. What an interesting choice for a book aimed at young people. One might wonder if the author was trying to prepare kids for their adult lives.
But because this is a juvie, a happy ending is required (you can tell me about all of the sad kids books in comments). There’s a natural disaster that can only be mitigated thanks to Tyros’ throwing arm; he’s a hero. the book isn’t entirely a downer.
But if you stop to think about it …
The Space Olympics is long out of print.
1: Merinolas are an alien herd animal mentioned only once in the text.
2: The first being when his family emigrated to the high-gravity Permia from the even higher gravity world Gravus, when he was but a child.