Athletics: Books for Christmas - Failure to realise potential in heart-to-heart

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The Independent Online
IS THIS the book which stopped a piece of athletics history being made?

It was once said that the greatest sight in athletics was David Jenkins storming down the back straight of a 400 metre race.

The worst sight, meanwhile, was David Jenkins in the home straight of the same 400m race. There was more than a touch of that when watching Roger Black in the final strides at the AAA Championships final in Birmingham last July. Black knew that he needed to finish in the first two to guarantee himself a place in the British team for the European Championships and a chance of an unprecedented third title.

But in the last strides Black faded into fourth. It has long been dangerous policy to leave decisions in the hands of athletics selectors so, when Black was omitted from the team, there was a strong sense that in the previous couple of months he may have attended one book-signing session too many and one training session too few.

The publicity drive for How Long's the Course? - My Autobiography by Roger Black with Mike Rowbottom (Andre Deutsch, 250pp, pounds 15.99) had ensured, though, Black had at least one success in his last season. Of books in the limited athletics canon, only Linford Christie has ever sold more (and he has twice published "auto"-biographies), which is proof of Black's popularity with the British public.

Like Black himself, the book covers the ground speedily and seemingly effortlessly, from his days as a bright, football- absorbed, Portsmouth choirboy "who had everything", through to the athletics heights of the Olympic silver medal in Atlanta in 1996.

It was this book which revealed that Black had a serious heart condition diagnosed when he was 11, requiring annual check-ups ever since. A recurring theme throughout the book, written with The Independent's athletics correspondent, Mike Rowbottom, is the question of realisation of potential. From accusations from friends that Black had underachieved, to the philosophising during the pre-Olympic winter of 1995-96 with David Jenkins, there is a sense of self-doubt that Black never ran his perfect race. Athletics watchers were aware of the cruel catalogue of injuries in Black's career, but only now is there an awareness of what may have been, literally, at the heart of the problem.

The relationship with Jenkins, a predecessor as British record-holder, is curious because of Black's stance against drugs and Jenkins' criminal conviction for peddling steroids. Yet Black credits Jenkins with the role of mentor in achieving the pinnacle of his career in Atlanta. There are echoes of Chariots of Fire here, with Black receiving messages from pariah- like Jenkins just as Harold Abrahams did from his coach, the banned professional Sam Mussabini.

Black's auto-didactic philosophy grates at times, but not so much as his reluctance to express an opinion on the issues he raises in the book. "You can see both sides" is a phrase which betrays Black's future career as a TV pundit, but ought to have no place in such a book.