Books for Christmas: When action pictures speak louder than words: Mike Rowbottom finds the coffee growing cold while examining a stunning collection of familiar friends

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The Independent Online
IT CLASSIFIES as a coffee table book; but your coffee will get cold while you examine and re-examine the collection of photographs which constitute Visions of Sport (Kensington West Productions, pounds 14.95), a celebration of the work of the Allsport agency, which began 25 years ago.

Save for the legendary shot of Bob Beamon setting his long jump world record at the 1968 Olympics, all the pictures in this book have been taken within the last five years. Yet some seem to have been with us for longer than that, such has been their popularity and wide usage.

Thus one encounters Simon Bruty's sunsmoked study of an Italian football crowd, or Chris Cole's shot of steaming rugby players, or Bob Martin's capture of the moment when the Nigerian women's sprint relay team realised they had won an Olympic medal with a little surge of recognition, as one might a favoured poem in an anthology.

There are, though, the further pleasures of discovery within this superbly produced selection. The startling colour of rollerbladers coasting past a yellow weather- boarded house, or Seve Ballesteros contemplating life in front of a bank of vivid azaleas. The impossible, ants-nest frenzy of motorbike scrambling in Le Touquet, or the mass start of the Iron Man Triathlon in the waters of Hawaii. The isolation of a diver apparently about to fall into the centre of Barcelona.

But then, as Steve Powell reflects in his introduction, 'why use words?' One of the few criticisms one might make of the book is that the quotations selected to add weight to the six particular personality studies - for Daley Thompson, we have the line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 'And say to all the world this was a man' - are portentous rather than impressive.

Allsport photographers also feature prominently in The London Marathon (Queen Ann Press, pounds 19.95), a collection of around 150 pictures of the 1993 event.

But a lot of the pictures are too small, and many have an over-familiar feel. Thirteenth time around, shots of the massed start or runners in funny wigs have lost their initial impact.

Although there are some fine exceptions - the soles-up view of a prostrate runner in an Arsenal shirt, the moment in front of the Houses of Parliament when Eamonn Martin, joy in his eyes, makes his crucial winning break from the despairing figure of Mexico's Isidro Rico - the overall effect is unmemorable.

Surely it would have been better to have matched the preceding history of the event, set out with characteristic and engaging warmth by Patrick Collins, with a selection from 13 years' worth of photographs?

No one could cavil at the span of action involved in John Lovesey's compilation of reports and pictures which form Great Moments In British Sport (The Bath Press, pounds 15.95).

It begins with the infamous 1860 bare-knuckle fight between John Heenan and Tom Sayers, who fought all but five of the 37 rounds with a dislocated right arm and 'a laugh of lunatic gallantry on his lips'. It ends with the retirement of Brian Clough in the spring of this year.

In between there is a compelling selection of events which offer particular interest to followers of athletics, who have not exactly been overwhelmed with published material this year.

We have an account of Sydney Wooderson's last race - and victory - in 1946 by Stanley Halsey, of the Daily Express: 'The tension was so great, when I looked at my programme later, I found it a bit of crumpled paper in my hand.' Inevitably, we have Roger Bannister's four-minute mile in 1954, and an account of Chris Chataway's defeat of Vladimir Kuts later that year written by Peter Wilson, of the Daily Mirror, which draws upon oddly similar effects to the Wooderson report.

'Hats are sailing into the air . . . I find I can't begin to type because I have banged my hand so hard on the wooden bench in front of me that it is numb.'

We have an account by the Guardian's John Rodda of Ann Packer's sublime and unexpected 800 metres victory in the 1964 Olympics - 'Had Miss Packer found fairies at the bottom of her garden she could have looked no more startled than when she pressed the medal to her cheek'. We have Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe, Liz McColgan, Sally Gunnell and, in an account by Cliff Temple, of the Sunday Times, the 'small boy in floppy shorts and plimsolls' who ran at the White City and grew up to be Linford Christie.

In reflecting upon the live newspaper coverage from which he draws the bulk of his material, Lovesey praises the succinctness of some past reports. 'There is merit in brevity,' he reflects. True. Even if some of the reports leave one's appetite whetted rather than satisfied.