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The Olympian

Being that this is the year of the Olympic Games, it was only fitting to want to learn about the first African American Olympic medalist in the history of the modern Games, John Baxter Taylor, Jr., a phenom of the 400-meters, a.k.a the Quarter-Mile. Craig T. Williams explores the life of Taylor in his book The Olympian.

Born in Washington in D.C. before his family moved to Philadelphia, Taylor attended the University of Pennsylvania, first attending the Wharton School of Fiance before getting his degree from the School of Veterinary Medicine. He was a member of Sigma Pi Phi.

In 1908, Taylor earned a spot to the Games of the IV Olympiad in London (the site of this year’s Olympics) in the 400 meters, the first African American to represent the United States in an Olympic Games. Making his way to the 400 finals, a protest because of an unfair disqualification of teammate John Carpenter for impending, Taylor sat out the 400 finals re-run only to win the gold medal as a member of the 1,600 medley relay days later.

Book cover for Craig T. Williams’ The Olympian.

Taylor would pass away nearly five months later from typhoid pneumonia at 26-years-old.

Purchasing the book with the thoughts of it being a true biography, seeing the words “Inspired by”and “A Novel by” on the cover made me apprehensive. How am I suppose to really read this text, as a work of fiction or as a biographical sketch? Would it be possible to decipher the facts from the dramatization? And would the dramatizations be, well, too dramatized?

First published in 2010, the book is written in the first person narrative (comprised of a memoir and a diary entry by Mary Agnes Montier) as Williams takes readers through Taylor’s life as he “lived” it. Readers are able to walk, and run, in the same shoes that Taylor did as he grew from a high schooler to a man. This point of view is highly effective because it allows Taylor to be human. Readers are thrust into his mind, into his being and making him sympathetic.

The conversations become real. Taylor’s emotions become the reader’s emotions making readers become entrenched in the story.  It keeps Taylor’s life engaging and in turn keeps readers involved through to the end.

However, you have to wonder did Williams take the liberty through some of his dramatization of Taylor to make him much larger than he may appear? One instance was Taylor’s venture to Seventh Ward in search for a job. Although it made for a great anecdote in showing the continued growth from Taylor’s transition into adulthood, it demonstrated his refusal for sexual release to a whore because of faithfulness Mary Agnes.

The Olympian works on a level I can’t comprehend. One part of me wanted to me more of a biography, the meat and potatoes of Taylor’s life. Another part of me enjoyed the book because it wasn’t that. The book is a clash of two styles, much like Hollywood’s take on factual based material like Friday Night Lights or Glory Road. The dramatization makes for good films, and in this case a very good story, but how true doesn’t it stay to, well, the facts?

True enough.

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