The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award
Even reaching the shortlist for the world’s richest and longest-running prize for sports writing is an achievement in itself. The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award continues to be the benchmark by which all sports books are judged, and the unveiling yesterday of 2016’s set of seven hopefuls opens a vista of cracking reading and lively debate. Sports writing has come of age: any list that includes a title that managed to bag a Pulitzer is worthy of serious literary consideration.
Introducing The Magnificent SevenA ‘Magnificent Seven’ is how the Award’s Chair, Graham Sharpe, has defined this year’s shortlist and there is no doubt the judges have chosen an incredibly strong selection of titles. Covering six sports, and dealing, for the most part, with the complex pressures of success, obsession and sheer survival, these titles offer far more than the limits of the sports they describe.
Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek by Rick Broadbent
The second of two books this year on this most significant of long-distance runners (the other being Today We Die a Little from Richard Askwith).
Zátopek was undoubtedly a hugely complex character, enormously regarded in his time for his prowess and moral certainty, but one fated to vanish into the ether after his involvement in the Prague Spring of 1968. Endurance is the vital tribute.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Surfing memoir Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is undoubtedly already one of the books of the year, bagging a Pulitzer in the summer and ending up on a certain Presidential shortlist.
Finnegan’s account represents surfing’s first foray onto the Prize’s shortlist and offers a properly vicarious and deeply philosophical insight to a life shaped by wind and waves.
Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay
Adrian Doherty was the Manchester United star that never was: slightly ahead of the squad that ultimately became the Class of ’92, the ‘Doc’ was held in awe by those that followed, marvelling at his unprecedented pace and almost unconscious skill.
Comparisons with George Best ceased however after injury, establishing a chain of events that would end in mysterious tragedy. Oliver Kay’s sensitive writing cuts to the very heart of this grimly compelling tale.
Chasing Shadows: The Life & Death of Peter Roebuck by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge
Peter Roebuck was a towering figure in cricket writing and commentary; although his career started on the pitch, it was his erudition and qualities as a wordsmith that brought him true recognition. All this masked a deeply private man of true complexity, his life ultimately cut short by a shocking and untimely death.
Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge’s narrative unflinchingly lays bare all the speculation around that event and simultaneously also seeks to celebrate all that he achieved.
Mr Darley’s Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life – A History of Racing in 25 Horses by Christopher McGrath
Sometime racing journalist of the year Christopher McGrath deploys the inspired device of a fine horse’s blood lineage to weave a tale that begins with a singular colt, sourced from Bedouin tribesmen, through to the glory of Frankel, perhaps the world’s greatest Thoroughbred.
Being a book of horses, it is of course the wild characters that seal the story – Smithfield meat salesmen, assorted legendary jockeys, the apparent inspiration for Mr Toad, a veritable cast of saints and sinners and a grand total of two roguish Princes of Wales.
Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life by Diana Nyad
Cuba to Florida, by water: five times the length of a Channel swim, through some of the most perilous dangers the sea has to offer. The shark-infested Florida Straits; the rafts of jellyfish; the unimaginable power of the Gulf Stream currents.
Open-water swimmers judged it impossible without a shark cage: Diana Nyad, by then 64, proved them wrong, her triumph the result of an extraordinary series of battles (psychological, physical, economical) fired on by her own sense of mortality and the sheer power of never giving in. Find a Way crystallises this intent, underlining just what it is to achieve all that is possible.
Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game by Rory Smith
Seasoned Times journalist Rory Smith looks at the legacy of England as a football missionary, its coaches reaching out across the globe to inspire a vast army of soccer talent which has, arguably, rolled on to eclipse England’s own standing in the game.
The ‘Misters’ of the title, these were the men who for enormously diverse reasons found their calling overseas, from the mill teams of the Victorian era to the Roy Hodgsons of today. Apt anecdotes and a solid historical perspective combine to form a volume that pinpoints our sometimes invisible influence.