Book reviews: The best sports books of 2012

Tyler Hamilton (left) with Lance Armstong. Picture: AP
Tyler Hamilton (left) with Lance Armstong. Picture: AP
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SO, much at all happen in the world of sport this year then? What has been popularly described as Britain’s greatest ever summer of sport, from the Tour de France to the Olympics, from Flushing Meadows, where Andy Murray became the first British male to win a Grand Slam singles title for 76 years, to the Ryder Cup, saw the nation’s mood leavened.

So it’s strange that in this year of all years, two of the best books, Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race (Bantam Press, £18.99) and Richard Moore’s The Dirtiest Race In History, (Wisden Sports Writing, £18.99) should go beyond the pom-pom waving, and expose sport’s dark heart.

Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Picture: Getty

Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Picture: Getty

It is certainly notable that a book concerning itself with the decidedly un-Olympian preoccupations of cheating and lying is the one that has gained so much attention, culminating in its coronation as the William Hill sports book of the year in November. Former Tour de France cyclist Hamilton’s The Secret Race is co-written by sports writer Daniel Coyle, who has already set his sights on Lance Armstrong in the book Lance Armstrong’s War. Although this time the title does not refer to him by name, Armstrong is a vivid presence, and is pictured just over Hamilton’s right shoulder on the cover.

Armstrong dominates Hamilton’s memoir. It covers his years spent riding with Armstrong for the US Postal team and then riding against him for CSC and Phonak. All the while Hamilton – “my ancestors were rebellious Scots from a warring clan”, he reveals in the opening chapter – keeps quiet about rampant and cavalier EPO use by himself and his team-mates, including, most notably, Armstrong.

The brash Texan is the most significant character in this chorus-line of cheats, the one who bullied and harassed his team-mates, but who also kept them sweet with rides on his private jet. Hamilton depicts a pretty appalling world of selfish men; wives and girlfriends are discarded like the razor blades used to shave their – the cyclists’ that is – legs. Rather more care and thought is employed when disposing of the needles used to inject the EPO, with a Coca-Cola can coming in handy.

While on Armstrong’s team, Hamilton’s protective duties exceed what one might expect from a domestique. He even lied to his own father, who asked his son to tell the truth to him about EPO use. He is surprised how easy it proved. Afterwards, he senses a Rubicon of sorts had been crossed. When you flat-out lie to your own father, where does it stop? Not at the blood transfusions Hamilton agreed to have, described in unflinching detail here, and not even when Armstong’s strong-arm methods contribute to Hamilton’s exit from Postal.

Given the subject matter and the explosive nature of the story, it would take some doing for Coyle to make this anything less than engrossing. It is everything it should be; revelatory, well-paced and genuinely hair-raising at times. Mostly, though, the strongest impression is left by the sheer villainy of Armstrong. He is like a comic-book character; not quite of this world.

Ben Johnson is slightly more likeable, if a little less complex. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, it took only 9.79 seconds to establish the identity of the fastest man in the world. It then took just a couple of days for the result to be rescinded. However, the fall-out from the “dirtiest race in history” has consumed us for considerably longer.

Moore’s latest book sees him tackle a complicated subject, one allowing him to exhibit trademark investigative skills that were first established six years ago with In Search of Robert Millar. He tracks down the so-called “mystery man” present at the drug-testing area just after the race; one who Johnson still protests tampered with his sample by handing him a can of beer that had been spiked. As with Armstrong, it’s not as if Johnson is the only rotten apple. In total six of the eight participants in the men’s 100m race became embroiled in drugs scandals, sooner or later.

Thankfully, rogues have not completely dominated the year’s publishing output when it comes to sport. Among the platoon of Britons who distinguished themselves this summer, we have the blessed Bradley Wiggins to admire. His second autobiography is a genuinely uplifting read. Wiggins doesn’t always conform to the idea of a sporting hero. In style and outlook, he is an outsider. However, he has now been firmly embraced by the mainstream. My Time (Yellow Jersey, £20) is a pacey look back at his recent successes; a remarkable double-fisted salute comprising the yellow jersey and an Olympic time trial gold. No wonder the book concentrates on these two triumphs at the expense of a detailed trawl through his back story.

It hasn’t been a great year for Scottish football fans, although Celtic’s recent victory over Barcelona restored some pride. The win was made to seem even more remarkable for those armed with the intimate knowledge of the Spanish side provided by Graham Hunter’s Barca (Backpage Press Limited, £8.99) an in-depth study of what happens at a football club when things go right. Hunter, an Aberdonian, moved to Spain ten years ago to report on a team that has steadily dispensed with the overpaid prima donnas and instead concentrated on developing young talent, to the extent that they recently fielded a side drawn entirely from their own academy.

For chroniclers of Scottish football, celebrating great teams invariably involves having to track them down first, since their achievements were many years ago. Richard Gordon marks the 30th anniversary of Aberdeen’s victory over Real Madrid in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final with Glory in Gothenburg, (Black and White Publishing, £14.99) a book that charts the progress to the final through the eyes of the players involved.

Granted, it’s an unremarkable idea. Gordon has, however, executed it with love, care and precision. While memories of a famous night still hold a charge, it is just as enjoyable to learn about the players’ lives since. Many have followed in the footsteps of the manager (a certain Alex Ferguson) while others have retired to the traditional post-game pursuit of running pubs. Some relationships have curdled and soured. Ferguson, meanwhile, declined a request to be interviewed, the only one to do so.

The book’s none the worse for that; its strength lies in accounts from the less-remembered heroes such as Stuart Kennedy, named on the subs’ bench by Ferguson even through he could barely walk due to an injury that ended his career. It’s a heart-warming tale in a year when sport’s successful literary conceits dwelled on less noble matters.