Most of the time sports literature is dominated by footballers' vapid "auto- biographies" which are purpose-written for club shops and have not the ghost of a chance of winning prizes. But some years are better than others, and this is one, making it all the more frustrating that the William Hill award for the best sports book of 1998 should go to one with as much to say about real sport as a Jilly Cooper novel is seriously informative about horse racing.
This is not to say that Robert Twigger's appealingly written book (Indigo, pounds 6.99) about his experiences training with the Tokyo riot police, who prefer the martial art of aikido to the British copper's half-nelson, fails to be fascinating, only that in a year that has again raised the standards of genuine sports book writing the judges have got their own pyjamas in a twist. Admittedly they frown on ghosted books, but Tony Adams makes no secret of the fact that Ian Ridley put his words in the right order in the excellent Addicted, which, sadly, was only a joint runner-up. Addicted is far and away the best sports read of the year.
That being said, Twigger (who won the Newdigate prize for poetry in 1985) penetrates the mysteries of everyday life in Tokyo. His interest in martial arts came about when feeling helpless as a van driver threatened to dissect a businessman who had carved him up in his sports car. Twigger was 30 and had lost his job as a teacher. "I felt control of my life was slipping away, that I was fading fast, becoming a slothful blur with an existential value approaching nothing." Existentialism is not big on the shelves of the Arsenal shop.
He had often considered martial arts "... but the guardian angel kung-fu fighting freakishness of it put me off. For twenty years". His Tokyo flat- mate Chris insisted that they should not study kung-fu, which he said was badly taught, or judo which he dismissed as having become a sport. So when Twigger finds out (he is somewhere in Indonesia) he is going to be surprised to discover that he is now considered to be a sports writer.
They settled on aikido and a cruelly intensive course. They went back to their cockroach-infested flat and attacked each other with the enthusiasm and predictability of Inspector Clouseau. Early on, Twigger often "sensed the victim in me".
He lay awake at night in chronic discomfort, but he grew to like pain, "a sort of pain you get from having a shoulder pinned to the ground at the end of an aikido move. Your partner held your arm and twisted it behind your back, grinding your face further into the mat. The pleasure came from you knowing that nothing was being broken, that you could `take it', that the shoulder was being stretched, taken to its own limit and then released just when you tapped out on the mat". He came across exponents who ignored that tap on the mat and enjoyed the sound of breaking limbs. He became "a connoisseur of pain".
So what did he get out of this torture? "Outsiders were all the same. They wanted to know if you could duff up Mike Tyson. Sometimes I explained the implicit fallacy at length. Sometimes I just said, `I may not be able to dish it out, but I know I can take a hell of a beating.'"
In the end he could no more explain Japanese obsessional behaviour than when he began, but the story of his bruising quest to find out is absorbing. Even if he had hopes of a prize for contemporary literature rather than sports writing, it has to be better than a kick in the teeth.