Christmas Books Special: Sport

On a dusty Athens roadside, she sat down and wept...
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The Independent Culture

An Olympic year isn't just the ultimate challenge for the world's greatest athletes; it puts publishers on the spot too. The build-up has been long and hard. All but one of the 12 chapters are in the can. The ghostwriter is on standby for the final time. The publicist has sorted the interview requests, and the printers are getting restive.

An Olympic year isn't just the ultimate challenge for the world's greatest athletes; it puts publishers on the spot too. The build-up has been long and hard. All but one of the 12 chapters are in the can. The ghostwriter is on standby for the final time. The publicist has sorted the interview requests, and the printers are getting restive.

Now you go into the Games knowing that your man or woman is just a handful of performances away from destiny. But will you be able to stick a gold medal on the cover? Perhaps the lesson of this year's Olympic books is that you don't need to. You just have to have a great story to tell.

No story that came out of that heady fortnight in August was better than Paula Radcliffe's. She didn't just not win. She failed so spectacularly that she seemed to open up a whole new realm in the field of sporting disaster. Failure in sport is, by definition, public failure, but was the despair of an athlete ever more cruelly exposed than Radcliffe's as she sat down and wept on an Athens roadside, the finish of the marathon still some six miles away?

Recognition that this was just as much a defining moment in Radciffe's career as any of her triumphs is on the cover of Paula: My Story So Far (Simon and Schuster £17.99). It comprises two photographs: the winning Paula and the Athens Paula, and it's our knowledge of the latter that lends pathos to the expert telling of Radcliffe's life and career, for which ghostwriter David Walsh must take a lot of credit.

In book terms, what happened to Radcliffe was the next best thing to becoming Olympic champion. This is a terrific read - full of nice human touches from someone whose place in the public's heart was certainly not affected by Athens, even if there were people in athletics who felt that she should have braved it to the end, settling, if necessary, for a medal-less outcome. It surely helped that Radcliffe came back to win the New York marathon last month, and the book is now the fastest seller in the sports list.

It's possible that Radcliffe will soon be overtaken by Kelly Holmes: My Olympic Ten Days (Virgin Books £9.99), which only came out last week but which has instant stocking-filler written all over it. This is partly because of Holmes's own popularity after her two gold medals in Athens - she is said to be a shoo-in for tonight's BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award - and partly because its large format, colourful design and minimal length point to more than half an eye on the children's market. Nothing wrong with that, but an autobiography on the Paula lines it isn't.

The most insightful of the post-Olympic books is Matthew Pinsent's A Lifetime in a Race ( Ebury Press £18.99) in which the superhuman rower demonstrates a reflectiveness that's rare among sportspeople. Rowing is one of those sports that takes its practitioners into areas of suffering and sacrifice that are unimaginable to many other athletes, let alone the rest of us. Pinsent gives you an idea of what that's all about. For me, his was the supreme achievement at the Athens Games because of the nature of rowing and because the pressure on him to win a fourth gold medal was so great. He writes about both of these factors superbly.

The other big sporting event of the year was Euro 2004, and the lack of books that came out of it is one argument against those who would have you believe England did well there. Meanwhile, there's always David Beckham, and his move to Real Madrid in 2003 has inspired no fewer than three titles centred on Spanish football. They are: When Beckham Went to Spain: Power, Stardom and Real Madrid by Jimmy Burns (Michael Joseph £16.99); White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football by John Carlin (Bloomsbury £16.99); and El Becks: A Season in the Sun by Alex Leith (Vision Sports Publishing £17.99).

The first two are to some extent commentaries on modern Spain - the work of top-class writers who are experts in their field. Leith's approach is a little more gonzo. He travels the country for a season, and the effect is picaresque. But over and above all these titles I am inclined to recommend the Steve McManaman autobiography El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid (Simon and Schuster £17.99) if you really want to know what Spanish football is like on the inside.

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award did not go to an Olympic book or a football book (although both Pinsent and Carlin were on the shortlist), but to a cricket book, Peter Oborne's Basil D'Oliveira: Cricket and Controversy (Little, Brown £16.99). This account of the moment in the late 1960s when cricket finally had to confront South Africa's apartheid system is no gentle wander down memory lane but a really urgent, vivid piece of historical reporting that sheds fascinating new light on one of the sport's most significant episodes.

The revival of cycling literature continued with Matt Rendell's A Significant Other: Riding the Centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £9.99), which is the Tour seen through the eyes of a domestique, and Tim Hilton's hugely engaging history of the sport, One More Kilometre and We're In the Showers (HarperCollins £16.99).

Special mention must be made of a hymn to the hidden world of fell-running. Ignore the obscurity of this sport. Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith (Aurum £16.99) is one of the best books about the extremes of sporting endeavour that you will ever read. Askwith is very good on what drives the fortysomething male like himself to meet the sort of insane challenge that fell-running presents. And he brings a community and a landscape to life.

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