Sport: Better, faster, stronger...weirder

Christmas books of the year: From the boxer who couldn't run to the footballer who couldn't pass, these sporting books and biogs celebrate some unusual triumphs over adversity

Simon Redfern
Sunday 18 December 2011 01:00

Britons have an impressive history of inventing or codifying sports and then passing them on to the rest of the world, but when it comes to the Olympics Games, we acknowledge that the Greeks were a few thousand years ahead of us.

Yet, as The British Olympics by Martin Polley (English Heritage, £17.99), an impeccably researched record of Britain's relationship with the Olympic movement reveals, we can make a convincing case for having given Baron Pierre de Coubertin the inspiration for the Games' revival in 1896. After his visit to the Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire in 1890, he wrote: "The fact that the Olympic Games ... are being revived today is due not to a Hellene, but to Dr W P Brookes [the Wenlock event's instigator]".

Looking forward to London 2012, How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton (Profile, £10.99) is a handy and witty guide to the finer points of competition. If you want to know the difference between Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, or how important deckwork is in synchronised swimming, this is the book for you.

Britain has high hopes of cycling success in London next year, but David Millar, one of the world's best road racers, does not expect to be competing, given the British Olympic Association's zero-tolerance of doping offences. The Scot originally took the same view before briefly succumbing to pressure, leading to his high-profile arrest in France in 2004. Racing Through the Dark (Orion, £18.99) is his often harrowing account of his fall from grace and subsequent redemption.

Another competitor whose Olympic hopes were dashed was the distance runner John Tarrant. Banned for life in 1952 by the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) for having been paid £17 as a boxer in his teens, he refused to go quietly, turning up to races in disguise and slipping into the starting line-ups. As Bill Jones chronicles in his sympathetic biography The Ghost Runner (Mainstream, £12.99), in 1958 the AAA relented, but cruelly stipulated that he could run in Britain but not for Britain, robbing him of a chance to compete in the 1960 Rome Games. He carried on setting world records at 40 and 100 miles, before dying of stomach cancer in 1975, aged just 42. He deserves this belated recognition.

Yorkshire and England's record-breaking fast bowler of the Fifties and Sixties, Fred Trueman, was also a member of the awkward squad. He could be loud and uncouth, especially in his younger days, but in his biography (Aurum, £20), Chris Waters argues convincingly that his public face concealed a far more insecure personality, shaped by a deprived childhood and scarred by social discrimination. Cricket in Trueman's day was marked more by snobbery than skulduggery, but as the recent match-fixing scandal showed, the game is currently in clear and present danger. Quite how we got to where we are is the subject of Gideon Haigh's masterly Sphere of Influence: Writings on Cricket and its Discontents (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), an eye-popping saga of financial chicanery and endemic maladministration.

Which brings us neatly to Manchester City under the charmless chairmanship of Peter Swales, and I'm Not Really Here by Paul Lake (Century, £14.99). A City fan almost from birth, Lake was being talked of as a future England captain when in 1990, at 21, in only his third game as City's skipper, he ruptured his cruciate ligament. After five years of failed operations and unsuccessful comebacks, and feeling abandoned by the club, his footballing career was over. He plunged into a deep depression, and his unsparingly frank account of those dark days is an eloquent rebuttal to those who think professional footballers have it easy.

Mick Rathbone also struggled to succeed at the top level, being so crippled by lack of confidence when first breaking into Birmingham City's first team that he found it physically impossible to pass the ball to his hero, Trevor Francis. One of the best insiders' accounts of football league life for many a year, The Smell of Football (VSP, £12.99) is thoughtful and funny by turns, with plenty of authentically ripe language.

The outstanding rugby book of the year concerns a player whose career was cut short before it had properly started. Matt Hampson has been paralysed since breaking his neck in 2005 while training with the England Under-21 team. Paul Kimmage is credited as the author of Engage: The Rise and Fall of Matt Hampson (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), but the voice is all Hampson's, and whether he's reminiscing about lairy nights out with former team-mates or being patronised by that "annoying bastard" Jimmy Savile, the tone is often mordantly amusing and ultimately life-affirming.

Given the number of injuries most jockeys, especially jump riders, sustain over the course of their careers, perhaps Beyond the Frame (Racing Post, £30), a sumptuous, large-format feast of horseracing photographs by Edward Whitaker, should be called a treatment-table book rather than a coffee-table one. If you can't make it to Kempton on Boxing Day for the King George VI Chase, admiring Whitaker's beautifully balanced picture of Long Run passing Kauto Star on his way to victory in last year's race is probably the next best thing.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit

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