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Sport takes a close look at the adrenaline-fuelled and potentially deadly world of BASE jumping and wingsuiting. Not too close, though
BASE jumping

“I nearly drowned once,” says Espen Fadnes, calmly. “I landed in a harbour in the middle of winter and I had no plan for how to get out of the water. I was lucky to get out of it.” 

The 34-year-old Norwegian is one of the world’s most experienced BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots. He is telling us about some of the mistakes he made early on in a 15-year career of throwing himself out of helicopters and off mountains.

BASE is an acronym coined in the early 1980s to describe four categories of objects that can be jumped from: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges and the like) and earth (cliffs or mountains). Completing successful jumps from all four categories earns you a BASE number. More than 1,700 people have successfully secured theirs.

The modern wingsuit is a relatively new addition to the sport. It’s the closest thing to flying like a bird that a human can do: the pockets sewn into the suit between the arms and legs inflate with air, allowing skilled pilots to make turns and steer with subtle body movements, increasing the distance they can travel in freefall.

“To fly a wingsuit is surprisingly intuitive,” explains Fadnes. “It’s often hard for me to describe what I do with my body to make turns and change angles. It’s sort of like I just look where I want to fly and that’s where I’m going. And it truly feels like I’m actually flying. I know I’m not, but my body and my mind is fooled into believing that I am actually flying my body like a bird.”

The sport is growing as a whole, according to Alan Sim, executive producer at online extreme sports channel EpicTV. “One of the real reasons is the rise of cameras,” he says. “People are able to afford and use GoPro cameras and Sony action cameras. This has meant that documenting their wingsuiting and BASE jumping has become much easier and more affordable.”

There has also been an increase in mass participation, to complement an elite few travelling around the world making a living from the sport.

“Initially it was the adrenaline rush,” says British BASE jumper Jamie Flynn. “But I soon realised what I loved about BASE jumping was the chance to travel to some of the most unique places in the world – places you probably wouldn’t necessarily visit otherwise. You see the world through a different perspective as you wingsuit over it.”

The jar of luck

The sport is becoming more formalised with wingsuiting competitions and races (see the box on the following page), but it remains incredibly dangerous. An online list of BASEjumping and wingsuiting-related deaths since 1981 lists nearly 250 names alongside what caused each person to perish.

“There are quite a few jumpers that say you have a jar of luck, and a jar of experience,” says Fadnes. “The more you jump, you take pieces from the jar of luck and put them into the jar of experience.”

Fadnes has had his fair share of luck, including the harbour landing, and a close encounter with a cable car during a jump in China last year. Flynn wasn’t so fortunate. He got into the sport in between tours in Iraq with his parachute regiment, but was seriously injured in a crash in a remote region of Turkey in 2012.

“I opened my parachute and started to fly to my landing area,” he tells us. “However, it became quickly apparent I wasn’t going to make the landing area. Now remember, we have split seconds to make decisions in this sport. In that split second, I made a wrong decision that I ended up spending the next year paying for.”

Flynn tried to land in a grassy field, but as he got closer it became clear that the grass was hiding rocks. “Sadly at that point it was too late – my right foot was the first down and it landed between two rocks,” he recalls. “The momentum from the forward speed of the canopy clashed with my trapped foot and meant that I broke my ankle pretty much instantly.”

He reverted to his training and performed an emergency landing, bouncing off other rocks on the way. As well as his ankle, Flynn sustained fractures to his right femur, right wrist, radial head (in the elbow) and his upper arm. He was stranded, alone on the mountain, for 45 minutes before help arrived. The doctors told him he would never jump again.

“I laughed and told the doctor: ‘Let’s see about that,’” he says. “Admittedly I didn’t know the severity of the injuries at the time. But, like most BASE jumpers I have met, I’m incredibly determined. I set the goal to get back to BASE and that’s what I did.”

Addicted to BASE

So, why do they do it? “I’m addicted to adrenaline,” says Fadnes. “And that goes through my whole life. I’m never able to keep a relationship; I’m never able to have a normal job. The only stable thing I have in my life is to jump off a mountain with a wingsuit. The rest is just chaos. When I jump off a mountain and I start flying, I feel at peace with myself. I feel like I belong there – and it’s a sensation of control, happiness, mastery, and a weird feeling of actually flying. When I land, the normal thought is always towards the next jump – the next shot of adrenaline.”

There’s more to the appeal than just a hit of adrenaline, says Flynn: “Don’t forget that the jump itself is just a small part of what we do. What people don’t see in videos is the preparation that goes into each jump. We religiously study maps, weather reports and so on for at least a month before a jump.

“The end euphoria is not just about the adrenaline rush from doing something crazy. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that training, weather and everything came together.”

There is a danger of making bad choices. Being a successful jumper means doing the planning and knowing when to say no. We ask Fadnes about what he has to consider before doing a jump. He gives us a long list including the equipment, the skill level and nerves of the pilot, the steepness and height of the jump, the wind level, the weather and any obstacles along the flight path (“If you hit a power line, you’re pretty much done”) or in the landing area.

The list of BASE jumping deaths is full of examples of people doing jumps they weren’t experienced enough to tackle, or going ahead with a jump despite the conditions not being right.

“You have two different personalities that don’t work very well in BASE jumping,” says Fadnes. “Number one has trouble understanding the risk. They get so afraid that they lack the ability to cope with the actual dangers.

“The other personality is way too riskwilling. You have a lot of them. They start BASE jumping and they take extreme risks. That kind of personality normally quits BASE jumping after a few years because, after a short time, they stop feeling afraid. They stop getting that kick of adrenaline and it becomes boring. Or they die because they are too risk-willing.”

Adrenaline is like a drug, and Fadnes tries to manage the dose by increasing the difficulty of what he does only in small increments. “Most of us have what I would claim is a fairly healthy risk-willingness,” he says. “We’re willing to step off a mountain, but we do everything we can to make it as safe as possible. We take such small steps forward that we never lose that feeling of fear, that feeling of adrenaline.

“And it’s this strange sensation of actually properly being a bird. That feeling is way beyond the desire to get some adrenaline. It’s almost like I’m doing something that humans aren’t supposed to be able to do – but it also feels natural and easy."

The best ways to steer clear of a snow sport-related injury this winter, courtesy of alpine skier Chemmy Alcott

Staying injury-free on the slopes isn’t easy.

Skiers put their knees, lower legs and head at risk the most. Snowboarders are more likely to end up with a damaged wrist, coccyx, shoulder or ankle. But, according to Britain’s now-retired number one female alpine skier and four-time Olympian Chemmy Alcott, there are ways to avoid nursing an injury in apres-ski.

Better body, better holiday

“If you can get stronger both in terms of your cardiovascular fitness and your actual strength, then you will get more out of your holiday. Snow sports are at altitude, so the heart will be working harder than normal - although you will have sufficient recovery time in lift queues and on the lifts themselves. The more you ski or board, the better the value for money. See your body as an investment.”

“Focus on building up your VMO [vastus medialis oblique, the teardrop-shaped muscle positioned just above and to the inside of the knee cap] to protect the commonly injured anterior cruciate ligament. And also work on your core, which is essential in terms of separating and controlling your lower and upper body.

“For skiing, cycling is a great aerobic activity because it not only improves your cardiovascular fitness, but also builds up the VMO, thus reducing the chance of injury to the knees. And standing, active core-strengthening and rotation exercises are fantastic. 

“I always wear a helmet on the slopes. It’s not about me not trusting myself, it’s about others losing control and being hazardous. Everyone should wear a helmet – in fact, you are more of an anomaly now if you aren’t wearing one.”


Ski strength

The founder of strengthambassadors.com, Sally Moss (@gubernatrix), gives her top six exercises to add to your winter training. Use a weight that allows you to keep good form, but is challenging

1) Squats

The best all-round exercise for leg strength and stability. Less experienced? Hold a kettlebell/dumbbell in front of you. More experienced? Do a barbell back squat (4 sets of 8 reps, descending slowly, driving up fast)

2) Romanian deadlift 

This works the glutes and hamstrings, which are essential for keeping the knee stable and preventing injuries (4 sets of 8)

3) Rear foot elevated split-squat

Hold dumbbells for this. It’s a good all-round leg developer and is done one leg at a time, ensuring the weaker side has to work hard (3 sets of 8 reps on each leg)

4) Dumbbell bent-over row 

This will strengthen your shoulder retractors and improve posture. Better posture reduces the pressure on the lower back (3 sets of 10)

5) Plank with alternating leg lift

A core exercise that trains you to keep your trunk stable while moving the lower limbs (3 sets of 60 seconds)

6) Box jumps (or squat jumps) 

Train your leg muscles to push explosively, then decelerate and absorb shock. Ensure you land in a good position with feet hip-width apart, knees over toes (5 sets of 5)


Chemmy Alcott is a supporter of Right To Play, the international sport for development and peace charity, and will be attending the Right to Play Big Red Ball fundraiser this Thursday: www.righttoplay.org.uk

She has won Olympic bronze and the doubles circuit Grand Slam. Now Jordanne Whiley is set on wheelchair tennis singles glory
Jordanne Whiley

You started playing wheelchair tennis aged just three. Was it case of love at first hit?

“Kind of. I grew up with it, so it’s all I’ve ever known. At the same time, I was a massive science geek, so I was studying for a career in forensics. I had to choose between a career in science and a career in sport. But I came back from a tournament in Beijing and suddenly realised this is what I want to do.”

It’s gone well, considering you won all four Grand Slam doubles titles this year.
“Yeah, it’s been absolutely crazy. It’s been the best year of my entire life, so the only way I can top that really is by doing it in the singles. And that’s one of my goals going into next year – to get my singles ranking higher and win the US Open singles event.”

Why the US Open?
“Just because it’s the last one, really. That means it gives me a year now to work really hard on the training court and get some more experience at some Grand Slams. This year was the first time I’ve qualified for the Grand Slams off my own back, as opposed to a wildcard entry, so I really deserved to be there. Now I’ve got to get more experience and work my butt off.”

What is the major thing you need to work on?
”For me, it’s just mental. I struggle with nerves a lot, and I put too much pressure on myself. Sometimes I think I want to win too much, so it kind of clouds my performance. I just need to learn to lighten up a bit, really, learn to relax and just enjoy playing. That’s something I’m working with the sports psychologists on quite closely.”

After winning the bronze medal at London 2012, you said you were just “relieved to get off the court”. Is that the sort of pressure you’re talking about?
“Yeah, definitely, but it’s something I’ve improved. Especially towards the end of this year, I’ve been enjoying tennis a lot more – that might just be because I’m winning! I’ve got a new coaching team, and they’re helping me to lighten up and enjoy the sport more. I’ve seen better results already.”

How nervous were you going into the US Open, knowing the Grand Slam was on?
“I was bricking it. There was so much media attention before it, so I didn’t want to come back and be really disappointed that I got so far and ruined it. All that hard work would have been wasted, so there was definitely a lot of pressure – but I was very grateful that I had Yui [Kamiji] on court with me. She’s one of the happiest people in the whole world, so even when things were going wrong, she was still supporting me.”

You’re obviously planning to defend your doubles titles as well. How much harder are you expecting that to be?
“It’s going to be so hard. No one is going to want us to win another slam, especially the Dutch [Whiley and Kamiji beat Jiske Griffioen and Aniek van Koot in three of the four Grand Slam finals]. It’s going to be hard – but we’ve done it once and we’re only going to get better, so we can do it again.”

Footballers, rugby players, wrestlers and NFL stars are risking their futures and their lives by playing through concussion. The end results can be devastating

Chris Nowinski was the first ever Harvard graduate to join the WWE.

Wrestling isn’t a common destination for alumni of the prestigious college, but Nowinski took to it with aplomb. He was naturally athletic – he had played as a defensive tackle for Harvard’s American football team and, at 6ft 5in, he had the physique to look the part as a wrestler. His character played on the stereotypes associated with his education – Nowinski wore briefs emblazoned with the Harvard ‘H’, and quoted Shakespeare to his opponents.

In 2003, an incident in the ring sparked a dramatic career change. “I was wrestling in a non-televised match in front of about 5,000 people,” he recalls, when we speak to him on the phone from his Boston office. “I was supposed to get kicked in the head and I was too close to the kick and it caught me under the chin. I immediately forgot where I was, and what we were doing.” He carried on, despite the concussion.

“I didn’t know enough to stop, so we ended up finishing the match, making up a new ending and then I went backstage and downplayed my symptoms. Even though I had headaches and nausea for weeks, I kept on telling the medical team I was fine, because I thought I was supposed to tough my way through those sorts of symptoms.”

It’s a common attitude among sportspeople, who regularly try and play on through concussion. Sometimes, they might not even be aware that they have a concussion – there’s a lack of understanding about what the word actually means. It’s not just getting knocked out. Seeing stars or feeling dizzy after a blow to the head are also symptoms of a concussion.

Over time, repeated concussions can cause serious problems, and scores of retired athletes in contact sports have suffered. “The headaches were pretty consistent for five years,” says Nowinski of his own issues, which forced him to retire from wrestling. “The sleep disorder lasted for threeand- a-half years. I would act out my dreams, I would have dreams that I was choking to death. I had memory problems that lasted for about a yearand- a-half that were pretty tough to deal with, and the depression that comes with those symptoms.”

Keen to spread the word, Nowinski wrote a book called Head Games, which has also been made into a documentary of the same name, exploring the dangers of sporting concussions. Now the 36-year-old heads up the Sports Legacy Institute, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness and lobbies sporting organisations to change their rules for the sake of athletes’ safety. Part of his job is persuading the families of deceased NFL players to donate their relatives’ brains so they can be studied for signs of damage.

Sometimes, he doesn’t even have to ask.


On February 17, 2011, former NFL defensive back and two-time Super Bowl winner Dave Duerson was desperate to get a message across. The 50-year-old sent a text to his exwife, and also left a scrawled note at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. Both read the same: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Then he shot himself in the heart.

The ‘brain bank’, or the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a research lab at Boston University where scientists examine the brains of sportspeople post-mortem to look for signs of damage related to concussion. Duerson’s brain tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been implicated in the mental decline, bizarre behaviour and suicide of several athletes. The symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease – the damaged bits of nerve cells in the brain form abnormal proteins that then multiply and spread into other areas. “It looks like the brain essentially starts to rot,” says Nowinski. “The most advanced case of CTE we’ve seen was in a former NFL running back whose brain shrunk to half its original size.”

CTE was found in the brain of Justin Strzelczyk, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman killed when he drove into a tanker truck at 90mph while driving the wrong way up the freeway during a police chase.

It was also found in wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life. “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient,” said one report. Nowinski writes of his former colleague in Head Games: “Whatever role steroids may have played in the situation, I believe he would never have become a murderer without the brain disease.”

One study by the Boston brain bank looked at the brains of 34 deceased NFL players, and found evidence of CTE in 33 of them. Another study, commissioned by the NFL, found retired players over the age of 50 were five times more likely than the rest of the US population to be diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory problems, and that those between the ages of 30 and 49 were 19 times more likely.

The most recent research estimates that 30 per cent of NFL players will develop a neurodegenerative disease. It’s also possible that concussions could help explain some active players’ behaviour, too. Baltimore running back Ray Rice’s suspension from the league for domestic violence is far from an isolated incident – NFL players are about four times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than you would expect based on their overall arrest rates. Research has linked domestic violence to problems with the pre-frontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that can easily be damaged in a concussion because it bears the brunt of head-on impacts.


We’ve known about the link between sport and mental problems for almost a century. In 1928, the swaying and slurring of the punch-drunk boxer was investigated scientifically for the first time, and given the label ‘dementia pugilistica’. The plight of Muhammad Ali (diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome) is just one of a long line of warnings about the long-term dangers of repeated head injuries.

Despite that, Nowinski reckons as many as 80 per cent of concussions in contact sports still go undiagnosed – either because players are unaware of the symptoms, or they don’t want to show weakness. However, things are better than they were, according to Welsh rugby star Jamie Roberts, who is also a trained medical doctor.

“Go back six or seven years and there was a three-week rule that was standard, but teams would never stick to it,” he says. “Players get knocked out, go to the side of the pitch, have a splash of cold water on their face and go back on. It’s that macho bravado side: ‘I got knocked, but I’ll carry on playing.’”

Roberts cites an example from his own career, where he stayed on the field for 10 minutes with a fractured
skull before his symptoms worsened and he had to come off. It’s a regular occurrence in football, most recently in the case of Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who stayed on the field for 14 minutes after a heavy blow to the head, and who appeared to be bleeding from his ear when he eventually came off.

Staying on the pitch is a terrible idea for several reasons, the foremost of which is ‘second impact syndrome’. The brain is vulnerable in the days and weeks after a concussion – damaged nerve cells teeter on the brink, like buildings after an earthquake. Another hit can lead to instant death or severe disability. Nowinski likens it to “the Death Star in Star Wars when the deflector shield is down”.

“If you keep playing during a concussion, you’re most likely going to increase the length and the severity of symptoms,” he says. Part of the challenge is convincing players that they need to come off – a club doctor can’t do anything [to help] if the player isn’t being honest with them about their symptoms. “Concussions regularly cause problems with balance, reaction time and cognition, so what I tell athletes is that they’re usually dumber and slower when they’re on the field and they become a liability for their team,” says Nowinski.

“I think the World Cup showed that – a couple of players who played through concussion were pulled only when they made a mistake that nearly exposed the team to a goal. So the athletes should be told they should come off not only because it’s the right thing for their health, but also because it’s the right thing for the team.”


It’s not a problem confined to the highest level – there are an estimated three million sporting concussions a year across all levels of sport, and the best way to counteract it is education.

“It’s not just the players who need to be educated,” says Roberts. “It’s coaches, parents and referees. It’s everyone outside the game who can take decisions away from players. If I got knocked out playing for my local club, I’d want to carry on playing and go back to training on Tuesday ready for next Saturday. It’s important for that decision to be taken out of players’ hands, and that’s where coaches and coach education is paramount.”

Baseline testing is one of the ways to take the onus off the players. Roberts explains: “Before any season or campaign, you do a baseline test, which includes questions about your symptoms, balance tests, memory tests, memory recall, numeracy tests, which challenge every part of cognitive function. You have to attain those baseline test scores before you go out on to the field of play.”

Jason Sada is president of Axon Sports, an American company that produces baseline tests for athletes. “It measures something you can’t see,” he says. “It’s used to determine cognitive change – the tests are measurements that shouldn’t increase and improve – when they change, it’s really because there’s an impairment. But it is just one piece of the equation.”

These tools can’t help unless they’re implemented. Change is happening – slowly. Rugby union has been fiercely criticised in the past, but has changed its rules extensively in recent years. “In the elite game, it is pretty much spot on at the moment,” says Roberts. “The concussion bin has been put in place and it’s great – players go off and they’re assessed by a doctor, assessed by a competent healthcare professional and have to attain their baseline tests.”

It took a long battle for the NFL to recognise the dangers posed by concussion, but now the league has one of the best protocols in place for dealing with them. Other sports are following suit: this season the Premier League introduced new guidelines for concussion, including a tunnel doctor, but incidents such as the Courtois one show there’s a lot still to do.

Nowinski is critical of football for its approach to head injuries: “It is probably the biggest problem in sport – you have the world’s most popular sport doing everything wrong on the international stage.”

Jeff Astle (below) played for West Brom and England in the 1960s and 70s, and suffered with Alzheimer’s disease before he died in 2002. His family launched the Justice for Jeff campaign, calling for an independent inquiry on the link between heading heavy leather footballs and brain disease.

“It’s terrible to think what he went through,” said Astle’s widow Laraine when it was confirmed her husband’s disease had been caused by football. “The job he loved in the end killed him. Everything he won, he remembered none of it.” The dry language of the coroner’s report boiled down Astle’s career of crashing headers into four words: “death by industrial disease”.

Like any industry, sport has a responsibility to look after its own.

Sport runs the rule over the William Hill Sports of Book the Year contenders

Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry

Bill Jones (Bloomsbury)

When Bill Jones started delving deeper into the life of the brilliant yet troubled 1976 Winter Olympic champion figure skater John Curry, he was told by those who knew Curry best: “You are going in search of a black hole.”

Curry, whose triumph in Innsbruck turned him into an overnight star, had been predisposed to secrecy since childhood – the result of growing up as a gay man in a world that kept its eyes and ears steadfastly closed to homosexuality. While his AIDS-related death in 1994 threatened to keep his secrets locked away, Jones’ biography unearths them. Memories of friends, skaters, coaches and family members provide significant pieces of a complex puzzle.

Jones also uses Curry’s written correspondence with Heinz Wirz, his first lover, and the woman who ‘adopted’ him in New York to provide absorbing insights into the skater’s eternally conflicted – often morbidly dark – emotions. The result is a book that enthrals and mesmerises, in much the same way Curry did whenever he took to the ice.

“Flanked by Olympic officials, Curry entered the press room and took his place behind a forest of microphones. Slowly, his interrogators danced around their subject. This was new for them too. Coming out was rare. Coming out in public was surely unique. ‘Slowly the questioning got around to words like “virility” and “masculinity”,’ wrote Ian Wooldridge in The Daily Mail. Curry heard them coming and smiled at the room’s discomfiture and said simply: “I don’t think I lack virility, and what other people think of me doesn’t matter.” Warming to his subject, Curry admitted that he’d had affairs and gay lovers but ‘had nothing new to say about sex’. “Do you think what I did yesterday was not athletic?” he snapped at one reporter.”

Verdict: A touching, revealing story that could easily have gone untold.

Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport

Anna Krien (Yellow Jersey Press)

As the Ched Evans saga rumbles on, here’s a book that goes right to the (dark) heart of the matter. It’s centred around a true Australian story about a girl who claimed she was raped by a young Aussie Rules player. Author Anna Krien intertwines the narrative of the ensuing court case with other, similar (and mainly Australian) stories. It is not an easy read, covering how coaches and respected players have all found themselves at the centre of controversies. There is much analysis about rape – and what makes groups of sportsmen want to bond in the bedroom with a single female.

Plenty of other jaw-dropping details make it an uncomfortable journey, but it’s an illuminating one as Krien shines a light inside the locker room and beyond.

“This is what makes football special. It is a chance, an opportunity for glory, in a life that sometimes may hold little other promise of that. But what happens when some of these kids go on to become known by their teammates, clubs and fans as the ‘King’ or ‘God’? And when having sex with girls, especially the same girl, becomes a kind of off-field levelling among players? She’s the ball and everyone gets a touch – that is, if they’re ‘hungry’ enough. So have social distinctions really been done away with? It seems there are rankings in the darker stirrings of the football world, and it’s got nothing to do with class. And it’s in this murky territory where boys can become someone’s f**ked-up idea of men.”

Verdict: Sometimes drifts into a sociology essay, but the disturbing case studies Krien unearths are genuinely compelling.

Run or Die

Kilian Jornet (Penguin)

Running up mountains leaves you plenty of time for solitary reflection, so ultrarunner Kilian Jornet’s translated autobiography is inevitably introspective.

The 27-year-old Catalonian’s connection to the outdoors shines through, from growing up breathing in mountain air in the Pyrenees, to the various races and challenges that form the spine of the book. There are lots of descriptions of the sun rising or setting over a twisted landscape that will resonate with runners. The acres of internal dialogue swing between illuminating insights and self-indulgence, from the thoughts running through Jornet’s head when trailing a rival or ploughing on through pain, to philosophising in the wake of a break-up (“Did Alba really exist? Or was she an oasis in my mind distracting me from the monotony of running?”).

The question of what pushes athletes like Jornet to these extremes is a frequent one, and while Run or Die ultimately fails to provide a satisfying answer, it’s a worthy and likeable effort.

“Leggings soaked by snow, driven on by the wind that sticks to your face and freezes your sweat. Feeling the pressure from your legs, the weight of your body bearing down on the metatarsals in your toes, pressure that can shatter rocks, destroy planets, and move continents... Running downhill, slipping on the snow and mud before driving yourself on anew, and suddenly you are free to fly, to shout out in the heart of the mountain, with only the most intrepid rodents and birds hidden in their nests beneath the rocks as your confessors. Only they know your secrets, your fears. Because losing is death. And you should not die before you have given your all, have wept from the pain and the wounds.”

Verdict: Like an ultramarathon: heaven for some, unbearable for others.


Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport

Rob Steen (Bloomsbury)

The origins, evolution and impact of spectator sports – from 16th-century tennis to modernday football, plus everything else in between – is covered in this 530-page opus. It’s an audacious undertaking and the author spends too long at the start trying to define what exactly his book is (see below), rather than actually getting on with writing it. It’s divided into sections by theme – gambling, governance, professionalism, etc – and flits across different sports and eras in scattergun fashion. The quotes also come thick and fast via a variety of sources, from Harold Larwood to Woody Allen. Frankly, it’s all a bit ill-focused and overwhelming. 

What does shine through is the author’s evident knowledge of – and passion for – his topic. The book comes into its own in the late chapters concerning race and gender. In particular, when covering what’s rightly labelled as the most “obvious and durable prejudice” in the history of sport: sexism.

“As should be abundantly clear by now, this book is concerned more with the competition and consumption than participation – though the second of those particular c-words may be deceptive. It is less concerned with assessing access or value for money than addressing the obstacles that bar the way to consume sport at its most uplifting: fair sport, equal sport, genuine sport – sport for all. Still, it would be remiss, in a chapter about spectatorship, not to touch on the changes in the way we consume it, bringing us ever closer to the action in a visual sense while simultaneously adding to the bricks in the wall separating watchers from watched.”

Verdict: Wordy and convoluted. Readers may find their attention flagging before they make it to the book’s stronger, later chapters.


Gareth Thomas (Ebury Press)

Simultaneously exploring the rise of one of Welsh rugby’s all-time greats, and the challenge he faced in keeping his sexuality a secret, Proud offers an enthralling insight into a world and a struggle to which we are rarely given access.

From his desperate attempts to fit in during his childhood days, right through to his breakdown in front of national coach Scott Johnson and the subsequent revelation to his teammates, Thomas’ story is a harrowing reminder that sportsmen are as vulnerable as the rest of us. The suicide attempts alone read like morbid fiction. There is some relief in the way his teammates, and the world in general, accepts Thomas once he makes the decision to come out – and the journey he takes to get there is inspirational.

The honesty with which Thomas presents his many dark moments makes this an absolute must-read, whether rugby fan or not. Rarely has the sense that sport is only a game rang truer.

“My suicide would be measured, civilised. I would gradually become incapable, and slip gently into the water. My last image... would be of my family, in happier times. I’d finally understand one of the eternal truths of the sea: the reason drowning men are invariably discovered with a smile on their face. So much for the fantasy fatality. I couldn’t follow it through. I staggered away to be sick. I don’t know how close I was to losing consciousness, but survival made me angry. I was consumed by self-loathing, and the internal conversation wasn’t pretty: ‘You’re a shit. If you want to do something, whether it’s killing yourself or f**king winning for your country, do it properly. You’re weak, a f**king pussy.’”

Verdict: An eye-opening glimpse into the inner turmoil of a national hero.

Bobby Moore: The Man in Full

Matt Dickinson (Yellow Jersey)

He was at the centre of stories that have become English football legend. But he was also extremely private and an at-times complicated man who, as Michael Parkinson says: “You knew bugger all about.”

It’s no small task to take on a comprehensive biography of Bobby Moore, English football’s patron saint. But Matt Dickinson, chief sports correspondent for The Times, has put in hours of painstaking research – from sifting through old newspaper cuttings to conversations with former players, journalists, FA and foreign officials, and members of Moore’s family. It makes for a compelling and complete account.

Stories familiar (the Bogota bracelet; that post-match embrace with Pele) and unfamiliar (the ‘minor groin operation’ that was his battle with testicular cancer; his wanting away from Upton Park prior to the 1966 World Cup win) are covered, always with reliable recollections from those closest to England’s most celebrated captain.

“Mostly he drank because it loosened him up. It helped him conquer the insomnia and, on a more casual basis, it enabled him to throw off the overcoat of reserve. It took away the strains and, even after surviving testicular cancer, Moore carried more of those than he would let on.

Particularly after he had been elevated to England captain, Moore felt on parade 24 hours a day. To be always smart, always polite, always considerate came more naturally to him than most, but it must have been wearying to feel constantly scrutinised. A friendly pub, with half a lager in his hand and friends around him, was the sanctuary where Moore could start to relax.”

Verdict: Written with an elegance and attention to detail of which Moore himself would surely have approved.

Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play

Simon Inglis (English Heritage)

If you have ever played or watched amateur or professional sport in Greater London – from football on Hackney Marshes to the men's singles final on Centre Court at Wimbledon to a dip in Tooting Bec Lido – then Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play has it covered.

The epic breadth of sport and places covered with a forensic level of research is something to marvel at. It features rarely seen from-theair shots of stadia, black-and-white photographs (cricket on Blackheath, 1905) and classic posters from the past century – an ad for London Highfield v Australia at White City Stadium, 1933, is a reminder that rugby league has a heritage of its own in the capital.

It can seem like a dry read at times, and often resorts to reaching into the cliche barrel (on gold-painted Olympic postboxes: “2012, like the postman, did deliver”). Like Tooting Bec Lido, is very much one to dip in and out of when the mood takes.

“The very lifeblood of the city... the conduit for thousands of years of trade and of people... ‘the silver streaming Themmes’ of Edmund Spenser... the turbid waters of JM Turner, plumbed by Dickens and tamed by Bazalgette... the liquid vortex that both defines the capital and divides it... is also, demonstrably and delightfully, the most enduring, most public of all sporting arenas in London town.

Some 46 miles in length as it winds its way through the capital, it’s one of the busiest, too; home to 98 boat clubs, mainly for rowing and sailing, but also canoeing and punting, based in 65 boathouses and watersports centres.”

Verdict: Can seem laboured at times, but is nonetheless a beautiful encyclopaedia of London’s sporting and social history.

Genius. Bastard. Superhero. Twenty years on from his tragic death, Sport celebrates the extraordinary life of Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna

“I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car. It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle and the car appeared to be on that knife edge of being in control and being out of control.

“The car was pitched in with an arrogance that made my eyes open wider. Then – hard on the throttle and the thing was driving through the corner. I mean, it was a master controlling a machine. I had never seen a turbo car driven like that. The ability of the brain to separate each component and put them back together with that rhythm and co-ordination – for me it was a remarkable experience; it was a privilege to see.”

That was the joy of Ayrton Senna in full flow, described not by an awed fan, but by experienced racer John Watson in Ayrton Senna, McLaren – a new book by Maurice Hamilton released to mark the 20th anniversary of the driver’s untimely death. It’s an image that is hard to reconcile with the picture painted by Hamilton of the model plane enthusiast with whom he conducted an interview in late 1985, at the Brazilian’s rented home in the sleepy suburb of Esher, Surrey.

“I approached him directly – there were no PR people in those days – and told him what I wanted to do and he agreed, so I went to see him at his house. He was renting a big house with Mauricio Gugelmin – it was a detached house in a cul de sac. They had no furniture or anything – I remember peering into what would have been the lounge, and there was nothing in it except model aircraft parked against the skirting board all around the room. He loved flying model aircraft. We sat around a pine bench in the kitchen – like the ones you get in a pub garden, with a bowl of peanuts in the middle – and chatted for an hour.”

Of course, Senna was loved not only for his on-track brilliance, but also for his charisma off it. In interviews he was “absolutely wonderful”, says Hamilton: “English wasn’t his first language, but he mastered it as time went by and he would be very thoughtful in his responses to you. There would be long pauses and this would carry on all the way through his career in interviews. There would be a pause of half a minute, and you’d think: ‘Oh, he hasn’t got the question.’ But no – he’d be formulating the words in his brain, going into every detail, and he would explain it extremely well.”

He carried that aura everywhere in his life, not just on the record. “He was very humble, and he made sure that everybody was on his side,” continues Hamilton. “He would pay a lot of attention to them, he would chat away. He always shook them by the hand, looked them straight in the eye, but he was still demanding – he still wanted to get everything done right. But if you screwed up, be it organising his travel and the helicopter wasn’t there, or if you were a mechanic and you made a mistake, you got to know about it. He didn’t mince his words – he would tell you. Because he was going to get into that car and give 100 per cent and he expected you to do the same. Trust was everything to him.”

Sky Sports F1 analyst Damon Hill, who was Senna’s teammate at Williams in 1994, offers an insider’s view. “Ayrton had a kind of scary level of commitment to racing,” he explains. “If you compared him to Alain Prost, you would say Alain was the calculator – the person who managed risk – whereas Ayrton was prepared to put himself at the mercy of his own innate talent, which is not always a comfortable place to be. He really went out on a limb in his driving, and other drivers were in awe of that. Ultimately, there’s a point where you’re out of your comfort zone, and he lived out of that comfort zone a lot more than other drivers – and that made him different.”

Smooth operator

Hamilton claims that Senna’s charisma was never disingenuous, but it’s impossible to know how much of his behaviour was influenced by a desire to motivate and ingratiate himself with the mechanics and engineers who would ultimately be responsible for how quick he could go on the track. Above everything, Senna was driven to succeed. “Look, I really liked him a lot,” says Gerhard Berger, who raced alongside him at McLaren from 1990 to 1992. “But Ayrton was extremely selfish. He’d be a bastard, all of those things, but in a sympathetic way. That’s how it should be. You are not going to be the world champion and win races just being the nice guy. But people did not criticise him. They did not realise it because he’d been such a nice guy at the same time. Very clever. He was the same as Michael Schumacher in this sense, but he did it in a much better way.”

He certainly had no qualms about being selfish in negotiating the best deal for himself, as McLaren team principal Ron Dennis recalls: “I did say to him: ‘If you give me an option for F1, I’ll pay for your F3 season.’ He made it very apparent – not in a rude way – that he wasn’t interested. He felt he had the ability and he wanted to be independent.”

During a particularly protracted set of negotiations after he had eventually joined McLaren, with neither wanting to back down, Dennis and Senna flipped a coin to settle a contract disagreement.

“He was as quick as anyone we’ve seen, and terribly clever,” says Sir Frank Williams, Senna’s team principal during his truncated final season. “If he hadn’t been killed, he’d have probably been a billionaire by now. Immensely clever in what he set out to do, and he had a gift for making money.”

Even the name he raced under was a function of Senna’s business acumen. He realised early on that to succeed in F1’s sponsor-heavy world he needed to make the right moves off the track as well as on it. After rising through the junior ranks and claiming two championships in Formula Ford under real name Ayrton da Silva, Senna abruptly returned to Brazil, citing among other things the difficulty in getting sponsorship. When he came back, he was ‘Ayrton Senna’ – he’d chosen to go by his mother’s maiden name, which was more distinctive than the very common ‘da Silva’ and would help him stand out in press coverage and attract sponsors.

Passport trouble

Despite his frankness, Berger was one of the few drivers who really connected with Senna. “He kept himself to himself,” says Hamilton. “They saw him as the man they had to beat and generally couldn’t. And he really didn’t mix with them a lot – he was just so focused on what he was doing. He was just his own man – he didn’t do any of the social stuff. He was just so dedicated that he thought only about the car, about the racing; he would spend all his time at the track.”

That’s not to say he was antisocial. Fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello recalls a couple of spare days in Tokyo in one of his first seasons in Formula 1, and Senna accompanying him on an impromptu trip to Disneyland. “I opened my door, and Senna was coming out of the room in front of my room. He had nothing to do, he was going to the gym, and he asked to come with us. It was probably our best time together. But he was always a driver – he had eaten a hamburger there [at Disneyland], so I had to go running with him at eight in the evening because he was meant to go to the gym.”

But Senna became less serious as his career progressed, explains Hamilton: “He had a little bit of difficulty with our sense of humour because he took life so seriously. So you would say something tongue-in-cheek and he would take it literally. It wasn’t until Gerhard Berger arrived in the team that he really began to understand what jokes were all about, because Gerhard taught him to chill out and played all sorts of tricks with him. He was a lot better after that.”

Dennis recalls helping Berger in an attempt to “give him an understanding of the value of laughter”, as he explains in Hamilton’s book: “One of the best moments was when we were in Australia together, hatching up what we could do to really inflict pain on each other.

“Gerhard stole Ayrton’s passport without him knowing, and we surgically removed all the pictures from the passport and cut out from a very dubious magazine an equivalent size of male genitalia and carefully put it in place with Sellotape. At a glance, you did not realise anything had taken place other than there wasn’t a face where there was supposed to be a face. When Ayrton came back to Europe, he immediately got on a plane to Brazil. But, whatever the route was, he had to go through Argentina. That was the first time anyone looked at his passport. They were not amused and he spent 24 hours in Argentina because they would not allow him to pass through without his passport being rectified.”

The first scientist

Senna’s entry into F1 arguably marks the point at which the sport took a decisive turn from its roots as a garage pastime – in which adjustments to the car’s set-up were made by feel and based on hunches – into a science, with telemetry data and rigorous testing. In a way, Senna was the sport’s first scientist.

“Ayrton just brought a whole new way of working,” says Hamilton. “The depths he would go to study everything and learn about the engine, the tyres, the car was in a different league. It raised the bar above anything that McLaren had seen before in a driver, and that’s just what he did all the time – thought about every aspect of his racing, every aspect of his lap.”

He had an amazing eye for detail, even when tearing round a circuit at hundreds of miles an hour, and used that to help his team. “A number of people have told me that you’d see him sitting in the car with his eyes shut, you’d think he was having a sleep,” says Hamilton. “But actually he was going through the lap in his head.” Senna was using his brain as a simulator in the days before such tools existed.

In an interview conducted around the 10-year anniversary of Senna’s death a decade ago, Barrichello expressed admiration that the “simple guy laughing at the table could get emotions out of the way and drive really fast”. But Senna did not always find it easy to stop his feelings from interfering with the precise workings of his racing driver’s brain.

“You could play mind games with Ayrton,” says Eddie Jordan, who was managing Martin Brundle during his rivalry with Senna in Formula 3 in 1983. “We would employ simple moves to upset him. We knew Ayrton had a thing about being the first in line to go out to practise, and he wanted his guys to be first in the queue for scrutineering each weekend to avoid wasting time. We would arrive early, at about 6.30am, just to be first in the queue. That would irritate him like you wouldn’t believe.” It worked – after winning eight of the first nine races “he lost the plot,” says Hamilton: “He started crashing a lot. He couldn’t believe what was happening and as a result overdrove.”

Brundle, who had his fair share of duels with Senna in Formula 3 that season and later in F1, remembers a moment that sums up both sides of the man. “In 1993, he went into the back of me and hit me so hard it threw me into the barrier. I looked up and there was Senna running towards me with a really angry look on his face. I thought: ‘If he’s going to try to blame me, we’re going to have such a fight!’ But all he was concerned about was if was I all right. That was the great paradox that was Ayrton – he’d be the first man to run you off the road, and the first man running back to check you were okay.”

Hill recalls a similar moment when we ask him for his defining memory of Senna. “I saw him on a motorbike, in a tuxedo, in Monaco, with a girl on the back. He was going up the road very fast. He was on his way to the hospital. It was after an event, and it was because a guy at his table had choked or had a heart attack and typically for Ayrton, he got involved. He just had this instinct to want to be able to help in whatever situation. He had this need to be an agent of benefit. It wasn't just about the racing, it was everything.”

That is why Senna still captures the imagination – uniquely, he managed to balance natural talent not only with the drive and determination required to push the boundaries of his sport, but also with a genuine warmth, charisma and care.

Barrichello sums up best why, 20 years on, it’s not Senna’s untimely death, but his life that’s worth remembering:

“We thought he was a superhero,” he says. “And superheroes never die.”