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.