Book review: Chris Hoy: The Autobiography

Chris Hoy: The Autobiographyby Chris HoyHarperSport, 352pp, £18.99Review by ROGER HUTCHINSON

EARLY in this book, Chris Hoy muses on what readers expect from an athlete's autobiography. It's an interesting question. The bottom line must be celebrity. There would, for instance, have been little chance of HarperCollins pulling out the cheque-book seven years ago, when Chris Hoy was merely World Champion and a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, or even five years ago, when he won his first Olympic gold. It took that astonishing triple in Beijing last summer, the knighthood and all the subsequent trimmings to galvanise a publishers' bidding war.

But in this case celebrity is not all. Chris Hoy is not Jordan. He became famous by actually achieving something – something quite remarkable. We the fans and potential readers are therefore interested in how he did it. In his words: "what it takes to get there, and stay there – ideally sprinkled with a few semi- humorous anecdotes".

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The "semi-" prefix is illuminating. Chris Hoy is an essentially modest and serious man. That is presumably why his memoirs are sedately titled Chris Hoy: The Autobiography rather than any of the catchier alternatives with which his ghostwriter and publisher must have toyed.

In literary sales terms, Hoy starts at a disadvantage because he is a cyclist, not a footballer. Footballers do not have to win much of any value to qualify for the Christmas stocking book. They are there to feed the maw of a mass following. Cycling has a lot of participants but few spectators. The fact that Hoy is probably the best sprint cyclist ever to come out of Britain will not get 60,000 people paying to watch him twice a week. It may not even persuade 60,000 people to buy his book once in a lifetime.

That would be a pity. Not only is he infinitely more deserving of attention (and sales) than some journeyman veteran of ten years at Ibrox; he also has a story to tell.

It is a story dignified by mundanity. Hoy hails from a comfortable background. The closest he came to trouble at school was for squirting water from a mini-bus into an open-topped sports car. Following Hoy's ordinary grades in ordinary exams his careers adviser dutifully filled his own role in the tale by warning the teenager that there was no living to be had from sport.

Meanwhile he made his way steadily up the rankings. After a boyhood in BMX he moved into sprinting on proper bikes. Somewhere along the line – somewhere sooner than most, you suspect – he grasped the great sporting verity: that top-level (for which, these days, read professional) athletes are at least as much self-made as God-made.

That is not to deny talent. Everybody needs some talent. But if the talent is not twinned with discipline and application it will get the gifted youngster precisely nowhere. "There was always someone better than me," says the most successful British Olympian since 1908. "... (But] talent will only take you so far. At some point you have to start working, and as people catch up, you have to work harder ... 'talent' is vastly overrated in sport."

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That may be an eternal truth, but it is more true now than before. The Lancastrian orphan Henry Taylor won three swimming gold medals at the London Olympics 101 years ago. He worked at a cotton mill and trained during his lunch hour in the local canal. Taylor, Chris Hoy's triple-gold predecessor, would probably have been a champion swimmer in any era, but not on a regime of 45 minutes a day dodging barges and swallowing industrial waste.

But back to Sir Chris ... just when you're beginning to think that there's not much more spice in an athlete's than an author's life (chained to the treadmill, chained to the keyboard) along comes the summer of 2008.

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The abiding impression of anybody who followed those cycling competitions in Beijing was just how inevitable it all looked. How superior they were. How certain it was that whenever a British cyclist threw his or her leg over the crossbar their French (or whoever – it really didn't matter) opponents might as well have muttered "Zut alors!" and sloped off home. And at no time was victory more pre-assured than when Chris Hoy slung his own tree-trunk of an upper thigh across the carbon fibre frame and hit the boards.

So how satisfying to learn that they – our cyclists – felt that too. They knew they were the best. They only had to prove it.

When it was done Hoy came home to those made-in-Scotland slurs on his national allegiance because he had had the temerity to win three Olympic gold medals for a British team. It's sobering to read how he caught his first sight of the online comment threads that masquerade as contributions to "the national conversation".

It cost him a sleepless night – "is that the general consensus?" he wonders – and the reader cringes, for Hoy, for his family and for all of us. Then his girlfriend reminds him that he wouldn't take it seriously if a nutter hurled insults at him in the street. The comparison is a little unfair on the nutter in the street – who is after all brave enough to hurl insults in person – but it seems to have helped the greatest living Scottish athlete to come to terms with his compatriots' unique way of expressing their appreciation.

And then it was back to the treadmill, and onwards to London 2012. Don't bet against a repeat performance. Just hide the online comments from him afterwards.