x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Rugby man Moore is example of great sports writing

As the William Hill winner bags the richest sports book prize, Ben East surveys what is not just sports writing, but great writing, full stop

The winner of the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year 2010 steps up to the stage. He starts his acceptance speech, but something catches in his voice. He wipes a tear from his eye. Try telling rugby hardman Brian Moore that winning the world's richest sports book prize doesn't mean anything.

And yet sports writing is still dismissed by some as best confined to the back pages of newspapers. The prize, though, is slowly changing perceptions. Previous winners in its 22-year history include Nick Hornby for Fever Pitch (which arguably not only elevated sports books to a whole new level but also changed how football itself was viewed) and Laura Hillenbrand's horse-racing spectacular Seabiscuit - the film adaptation of which was nominated for seven Oscars in 2004.

Very rarely are these books straightforward tales of sporting success or failure. Indeed, as the judge and BBC sports broadcaster John Inverdale says before the announcement, the common thread binding all the books on this year's shortlist is how emotionally powerful they are.

Certainly, the 2010 shortlist suggests sports writing has never been in such rude health. Earlier this year, well before the longlist was even announced, The National spoke to Luke Jennings for his outstanding memoir Blood Knots.

It became the first book about fishing to feature at the awards, but he said at the time that far from being straightforward nonfiction packed with angling anecdotes, it was "a way to talk about the more profound issues and elements of a life story. Angling is in a sense a metaphorical activity, in that you're searching - blind - in an impenetrable dimension."

Highbrow stuff, then. But in fact, even the term sports book is misleading. This year's shortlist is stacked with histories, dramas, psychology, science and war.

The nominee Catrine Clay, resplendent in a Manchester City scarf, admits her biography of her team's most famous goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, isn't really a sports book at all.

"It says it all in the title: Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend", she says. "He was a fantastic goalkeeper, and most people know him for playing on in the 1956 FA Cup Final with a broken neck. But this was a man who grew up in Nazi Germany, who was a paratrooper by the time he was 17.

"An unbelievably tough guy. I just got the feeling that when he carried on in the final it was as nothing compared to what he had to do for Hitler in Russia. I just want people to read this and think what they would have done in the same position, as impressionable young men in Germany."

As Inverdale notes later, Trautmann's Journey is also very moving in its latter stages, when it explores what happens to a sportsman's psyche when he or she ages.

Not all the books on the shortlist are as unconcerned with the specifics of actual sport as Clay's: Matthew Syed's Bounce is a Malcolm Gladwell-esque treatise on what makes a champion (10,000 hours of quality practice as a child, it turns out), and Duncan Hamilton's A Last English Summer is a reflective travelogue taking in cricket's past and present.

But as Dan Topolski - winner of the very first William Hill Sports Prize back in 1989 - says to the assembled journalists and publishers, sports writing no longer exists in a ghetto in any case. It's just great writing, full stop.

Unfortunately for Topolski, he didn't enjoy the generous renumeration the winner receives these days. But, he says, the prize was very important in the process of adapting his tale of the London Boat Race, True Blue, into a 1996 feature film. And certainly it does have a function beyond celebrating a particular year's best sports books.

It acts, not least, as a bulwark against the reams of hilariously poor sports "autobiographies" ghosted by jobbing journalists - which reached a nadir in 2006 when the England and Chelsea footballer Ashley Cole's depressingly bland My Defence sold just 4,000 copies.

Compare that with the winner of the prize two years ago, the cricketer Marcus Trescothick for his very personal autobiography charting his battles with depression. And in 2002 Lance Armstrong won for a similarly enthralling look at his life rather than his sport (cycling).

It was no surprise, then, when Andre Agassi's Open (admittedly co-written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author JR Moehringer) - which hit the headlines earlier this year for its sensational revelations about his drug use - made the shortlist. And, of course, that the winner should be, as Inverdale says, an autobiography that is full of "genuine wit, insight, and forthright opinion".

Brian Moore's Beware of the Dog is certainly not the easiest of books to read, detailing the England rugby player's harrowing early experiences of abuse, and the constant battle with his inner self that drove him to success on and off the rugby field.

But what comes across is not just a passion for sport, but for life itself. And when I speak to Moore afterwards, he's positive that the decision to write it himself was, in the end, the right one - and not only because he felt his first, ghosted autobiography published in 1995 needed putting right.

"Look, Stephen Jones did a great job. But a ghostwriter can never really tell the story of their subject, get under the skin of them. It's just not possible. But also, when that was written, I was right at the end of my playing career. Having had 15 or 16 years perspective has been so beneficial.

"Having said that, it was a traumatic experience writing this. I was going over painful stuff. And I was well aware that autobiographies are, on the whole, rubbish. Particularly football ones.

"And the reason they are is because they're a money-making exercise, which is ironic because the footballers don't actually need the money. They couldn't give a damn, they're giving a few quotes over the phone... and because they don't care, the books won't reveal anything. I genuinely don't know why people buy them."

So why did he feel the need to write his story himself?

"Because I had to. I hope one day to be immensely proud of it. One of the things the book tries to deal with is the constant sabotaging of good things by my alter ego. And that process won't ever stop. It's happening now. And some days I'm more successful at dealing with it than others."

Today, then, is a successful day for Moore. And, happily, for sports writing as a whole.