Books For Christmas: Thoughts of Pirie, trivia and other obsessions

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The Independent Online
IN GORDON PIRIE, the subject of Dick Booth's lovingly written biography The Impossible Hero (Corsica Press, pounds 16.50), British athletics had a man who bridged the gap between two eras. The middle distance idol of the 1950s, whose races against Emil Zatopek and Vladimir Kuts became legend, was of the generation of Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway - but of a quite different outlook.

"No one in the comfortable, amateur world of British athletics committed themselves to the grind of training quite like Pirie did," Booth writes. "He ran, at first, four or five times a week, then daily, then, to the astonishment of his contemporaries, twice a day."

Pirie's attitude contrasted markedly with that of the Oxford pair of Chataway and Bannister, who combined with such historic effect in 1954 as the latter broke the Four-minute Mile.

"We were anxious not to get too stale, but there was also a certain amount of intellectual snobbery," Chataway recalls. "It would be impossible for thinking people, we felt, to spend all their time pounding out mile after mile. This was a hobby and we took pride in the fact that we weren't subjugating our lives to it."

For Pirie, running was never a hobby, it was an obsession, first as a competitor who broke world records but had to settle for silver behind Kuts in the 1956 Olympic 5,000 metres, then as a coach of successful runners such as Anne Smith, who herself became a world record breaker.

The way in which Pirie went about his business set a pattern for future generations within the sport. He was an outsider, frequently clashing with the establishment and disdainful of the media. (Think Dave Bedford. Think Steve Ovett...)

In 1956, when Pirie travelled to Bergen to race Kuts over 5,000m, no British newspaper had a reporter present. The Briton had kept his race secret, putting out the story that he had "gone fishing".

In a sense, he had - he landed both the victory and the world record he had set out for.

This is a painstakingly researched, well constructed treat for followers of the sport, which benefits from numerous evocative photographs.

The other obvious point of interest this year for followers of track and speed is a paperback reprint of Roger Black's life story, How Long's The Course? (Andre Deutsch, pounds 7.99). This includes additional chapters detailing Black's retirement from competition following the controversial decision to choose Solomon Wariso in preference to him for an individual place at the last European Championships.

There are also reflections upon the media career which Black is now pursuing with the BBC.

In 50 Sporting Years... and And It's STILL Not All Over (Robson Books, pounds 16.95), Kenneth Wolstenholme reflects upon a BBC commentary career which began in 1948 and ended - acrimoniously - in 1971. Wolstenholme has had an interesting life and witnessed many fascinating sporting occasions. You only wish he could have lingered longer on some of these, most obviously the match in which he came out with the apt phrase he will always be associated with - "some people are on the pitch. They think it's all over. It is now" - as Geoff Hurst struck England's fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup final.

But the moment is skated over, as are a number of others, and Mr Wolstenholme spends rather too much time settling old scores over his displacement as BBC's top dog commentator by David Coleman. A whole page is devoted to a reproduction of the "infamous billing" of the 1970 World Cup Final in the Radio Times which mentions Coleman's name but not Wolstenholme's, even though the latter commentated on the match.

Galling no doubt; but the reproduced pictures above the billing - of Hurst scoring his conclusive goal - should have been used here in conjunction with Wolstenholme's timeless words. Missed opportunity.

Did you know that croquet can be a dangerous sport? During a match in Japan a few years ago a wild boar crashed on to the court and ran amok, injuring four players before being driven away with mallets. Or that in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1971, the British driver Peter Gethin won with the fastest average speed for such an event, recording 150.75 mph. If you find yourselves interested in these facts you will locate them and others, in The Fan's Book of Sporting Trivia (Robson Books, pounds 6.99), selected by Nick Owen (yes, as in TV's Anne and Nick.

Geoff Tibballs's collection of three centuries worth of slip ups and cock ups - Great Sporting Mishaps (Robson Books, pounds 16.95) covers similar ground. At random - "play in the match between Launceston and Old Suttonians in August 1984 had to be halted on no fewer than four separate occasions after a herd of camels strayed on to the pitch from a nearby circus."

Reuters Century of Great British Sport (Mike Newlin and Tim Collings, Willow, pounds 16.99) jams a fascinating collection of stories and pictures together, even if the effect in places is of a taster, rather than the story itself. Well worth a look.

Mike Rowbottom