The best of 2004: sport books reviewed

Marathons and masochists
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The Independent Culture

The narrative arc for Paula Radcliffe's autobiography, My Story So Far (with David Walsh; Simon & Schuster, £17.99), was doubtless clear to her publishers: early promise giving way to struggles with injury and frustrating defeats until she moved up in distance and found another gear, culminating in a golden finale at the Olympic Games. Then real life and human frailty intervened - in Greece, of all places. But though her failures will be remembered, they will not define her career, and they do not detract from the pleasures of this book.

The narrative arc for Paula Radcliffe's autobiography, My Story So Far (with David Walsh; Simon & Schuster, £17.99), was doubtless clear to her publishers: early promise giving way to struggles with injury and frustrating defeats until she moved up in distance and found another gear, culminating in a golden finale at the Olympic Games. Then real life and human frailty intervened - in Greece, of all places. But though her failures will be remembered, they will not define her career, and they do not detract from the pleasures of this book.

Unassuming yet inspirational, like the woman herself, My Story So Far is shot through with the staggering single-mindedness and determination that has produced so many wins and records. It was the same kind of monomania that brought England the Rugby World Cup. In Winning! (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), the architect of that victory, Clive Woodward, is generous in revealing the secrets of his success. He applied the lessons learnt in business, and his attention to detail bordered on the unhinged - he hired a "visual awareness coach", for goodness' sake. He applies the same fervour to his autobiography. It's easy to see why England ruled the rugby world.

Similarly, you don't win four Olympic gold medals without tunnel vision. Matthew Pinsent's A Lifetime in a Race (Ebury, £18.99) gives a thorough account of a life devoted to rowing. There's also a marriage in there somewhere, but not much else. Though Pinsent should be applauded for having a go himself - and for making the shortlist for William Hill Sports Book of the Year - he does tend to err on the side of the anodyne. In Sydney four years ago, Tim Foster was the stylist in Pinsent and Steve Redgrave's coxless four, and his ghostwritten Four Men in a Boat (with Rory Ross; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) tells the story of that victory with more panache.

Before this year's Games, Dick Pound, of the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency, noted in Inside the Olympics (John Wiley, £16.99) that chaos was a Greek word and predicted nightmares in Athens. He was wrong, but it was a rare lapse from a man who tends to be right on the mark. His analysis of how the Olympic movement has become enslaved by corruption and drugs takes no prisoners. Waspish and opinionated, he is both insider and scourge.

In Significant Other (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99), Matt Rendell chronicles Lance Armstrong's victorious 2003 Tour de France through the eyes of Victor Hugo Peña, one of his most important domestiques - the team-mates who sacrifice their own ambitions to work for their leader. With Rendell's wise reflections on cycling, it superbly conveys the vicissitudes of a sport of wild extremes.

One of the most fascinating books of the year was The Long Round (Yellow Jersey, £10.99), in which Dominic Calder-Smith had the bright idea of chasing up some of the boxers who lost to Mike Tyson. As you can imagine, boxing doesn't come out of it well.

The large-format 100 Years of Football: the Fifa centennial book (by Pierre Lanfranchi, Christiane Eisenberg, Tony Mason and Alfred Wahl; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) is an official history of the beautiful game and its governing body. Comprehensive and exhaustive, it's perhaps not one for children, except of the grown-up variety.

It was no surprise that David Beckham's chequered sojourn in Spain should produce a bevy of aspiring Boswells. The Galactico among them is the old Spain hand John Carlin. Like his journalism, White Angels (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is strong on detail and impeccably written. When the England captain comes home, Chelsea will be odds-on to scoop him up thanks to their owner's billions. The absorbing Abramovich by Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins (HarperCollins, £18.99) gives a blow-by-blow of the Russian mogul's extraordinary rise.

If there's been a recurring motif in this selection, it has been sheer bloody-mindedness. And never more so than in Feet in the Clouds (Aurum Press, £16.99), another title on the William Hill shortlist. The Independent's Richard Askwith recounts a year spent running the big fell races. "A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession", it's subtitled; "A Tale of Masochism and Stark, Staring Madness", more like.

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