The world's fastest man and the greatest Welsh all-rounder jostle for position on athletics wish list

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of athletics books published this year: 

Usain Bolt: The Story of the World's Fastest Man, by Steven Downes (SportsBooks)

Considering that he was largely unknown, at least outside the world of track and field, until the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the speed with which Usain Bolt has risen to become to the best known athlete has been extraordinary.

Yet the experts knew what was coming long before the rest of us, among them the athletics writer Steven Downes, who was told to remember the name when he interviewed Bolt at the 2003 world youth championships, after he had won the 200m in a competition record time.

Downes has followed Bolt’s career ever since, watching him establish a permanent place in the record books by winning an unprecedented gold medal hat-trick in the 100 metres, 200 metres and sprint relay, all in world record times, at the Beijing Games, then becoming the first man to hold the Olympic and World 100m and 200m titles simultaneously when he won both at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, where he ran the 100m in 9.58 seconds, the fastest to date.

Bolt would surely have retained all of those titles had disqualification for a false start in the 100m at this year’s World Championships in Daegu, where he recovered his sangfroid to successfully defend his 200m crown before anchoring the Jamaican 4x100 metres team to victory in the relay, again in a world record time.  Now Bolt is a box office draw like none ever seen, so much so that the 100m final at next year’s London Olympics attracted more than one million ticket applications.

Downes, former editor of Athletics Weekly, has written a fascinating life story that explains how Bolt’s destiny was changed when his time for the 100m at a minor meeting in Crete in 2007 convinced him that the financial rewards being accrued by his compatriot, the then 100m world champion Asafa Powell, could be at his command, too. It was Powell’s world record of 9.74 seconds that the 6ft 5ins Bolt beat when he clocked 9.72 seconds on a blustery New York evening in May 2008, a mark he has since bettered twice.

Running With Fire: The True Story of Chariots of Fire Hero Harold Abrahams, by Mark Ryan (JR Books)

Author Mark Ryan recalls a chance encounter with Usain Bolt in his introduction to what is a fine biography of the man sometimes called the father of modern sprinting, the British athlete who won the 100m gold at the Paris Olympics of 1924, a performance immortalised in the award-winning movie, Chariots of Fire.

It was a meeting -- during the 2009 World Championships in Berlin -- that made Bolt aware that if he wanted to know more about the history of the event he had made his own, then Harold Abrahams was a character he needed to learn about. At the time, he had never heard of him.

He could do no worse than read Ryan’s book, which tells the Abrahams life story for the first time, describing not only his deeds on the track but his influence on the development of athletics as administrator and journalist, in which roles he helped raise the profile of the sport enormously, helping it attain the status that has turned the likes of Usain Bolt into major sports stars.

Ryan’s research shone fresh light on Abrahams’s  controversial involvement with Roger Bannister’s historic first sub-four minute mile and reveals the engaging details of his courtship and marriage to the opera singer, Sybil Evers, a romance which gives the story a wonderful sub-plot.

Read more about Running With Fire

Gold Rush: What Makes an Olympic Champion?, by Michael Johnson (HarperSport)

The 200m world record that Usain Bolt broke at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had for 12 years been the property of Michael Johnson, whose tracks career brought him four Olympic and nine World Championship gold medals, including the unique 200m-400m double at Atlanta in 1996.

Johnson has since become a respected broadcaster and commentator as well as a top-class coach and motivational speaker.

He has drawn on his huge experience in all these areas to present Gold Rush, an analysis of what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal that made the long list for this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Johnson conducted interviews with Bolt, Carl Lewis, Sally Gunnell, Seb Coe, Daley Thompson, Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Lennox Lewis and Michael Jordan among others in his attempt to find common characteristics.

And of course he is able to throw into the mix his own considerable knowledge of what it takes to be a winner, for example describing why he developed his trademark upright running style and how the disappointment of failing to qualify as favourite for the 200m final at Barcelona in 1992 gave him the motivational drive to win in Atlanta.

The John Carlos Story, by John Carlos and Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books) 

John Carlos is another 200m specialist but an athlete who made headlines not through his times on the track but because of the ground-shaking moment at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when he and fellow American Tommie Smith, who had won gold in the 200m final in which Carlos took bronze, raised black-gloved fists on the podium in what became known as a black power salute.

The gesture, condemned by the athletics authorities but praised by many supporters, including the white Australian silver medal-winner Peter Norman, was seen at the time as a spontaneous act but in this autobiography, written in conjunction with American journalist Dave Zirin, Carlos shows that it was long in the planning, certainly on his part. The black gloves, the bare feet and the beads he and Smith wore around their necks were all symbols taken from an early life coloured by his refusal to accept the injustices that encompassed the African American experience.

As a boy growing up in the New York black ghetto in Harlem, Carlos would steal food from freight trains and hand it out to the poor like a Robin Hood of his age, feeling that his neighbours had been swallowed up and cast adrift by an unfair system. These experiences, combined with the personal hurt of having to give up his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer as a result of racist attitudes, instilled in him a passion to help others reach their dreams that he carries forward even today as a high school track and field coach in California.   Following a philosophy based on the premise that ‘power concedes nothing without demand‘, Carlos was fighting for justice long before 1968.

Zirin, a Sports Illustrated columnist and editor of the liberal American political journal The Nation, has helped Carlos tell a compelling story of which the black power salute was only one detail.

The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop, by Bill Jones (Mainstream)

John Tarrant earned notoriety of a different kind in Britain in the 1950s and 60s when he became known as The Ghost Runner, emerging from the crowds at high-profile long-distance running events to join and often win the race. Press photographers flocked to such events, knowing his appearance would guarantee them a front-page picture.

But his appearances were more than a stunt.  Tarrant had dreamed of being an Olympic athlete and wanted to join Salford Harriers, hoping it would lead to a place in the Great Britain marathon team at the Rome Olympics in 1960. But his application to join the club was turned down and banned from competing because he had earned the paltry sum of £17 for taking part in boxing matches as a teenager, an admission he made out of instinctive honesty, unaware it would provoke such harsh and non-negotiable punishment.

His life then became focused on delivering a bitter message to the blazered officials at the Amateur Athletics Association, still dominated by a wealthy Oxbridge elite, that they were wrong and had condemned a great running talent to go to waste.

Tarrant died of cancer in 1975, aged only 42, and his story might have slipped away had Bill Jones, who was making a television documentary about working class runners in Manchester, not been handed a copy of a slim autobiography Tarrant had written himself before he died.  Jones was intrigued by the man and the story, which formed the basis for an engaging book, was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.

Ken Jones: Boots and Spikes, by Steve Lewis (SportsBooks)

The name of Ken Jones may not echo with quite the same resonance as some of the above but as an all-round sportsman he is regarded by some, particularly in his native Wales, as peerless.

Not only was Jones an accomplished rugby union international, winning 44 Welsh caps and representing the British Lions 17 times, he also had a career as a sprint athlete, at the peak of which he won an Olympic silver medal as a member of the British 4 x 100m relay team at the 1948 Games in London.

For many years he successfully, and seemingly almost effortlessly, he combined the two.  He was a fixture in the Welsh team between 1947-56 yet captained Britain’s athletics team at the European Games in Berne, where he won a silver medal, and ran for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954, winning a bronze, having the previous year scored a memorable try to help Wales beat the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park.

Welsh rugby historian Steve Lewis has put together a thoroughly researched book that also highlights the standards in behaviour with which Jones and his contemporaries complied and which seem alien to so many modern stars, particularly in rugby.  Lewis writes how players would embark on long sea voyages -- Jones sailed to New Zealand with the Lions in 1950 -- and pass their time engaged in “…whist drives, brains trusts and quizzes.”

In the words of one reviewer, reading Boots and Spikes -- another notable work given life by the astute Cheltenham publisher Randall Northam under his SportsBooks imprint --  was “like stumbling upon an unexpected delight.”

More books by Steven Downes
More books by Mark Ryan
More books by Michael Johnson
More books by Dave Zirin
More books by Steve Lewis

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