25 years of Runners and Riders
When we start the process of reading for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, we sometimes have only five or six books already entered. It is like the early stages of the racing season, when every horse just might be a Derby winner, according to its owner, trainer and jockey, but as each one appears on a racecourse it has to be judged against the other contenders and either eliminated from, or promoted up, the list of potential champions.
Then we have to worry about making sure every eligible book is entered. One would think that after more than quarter of a century as the richest sports book prize in the world, we’d be at the forefront of every publisher’s mind, with every author desperate to send their work to us. You’d be staggered how hard we have to work sometimes to have a specific book entered. This year there was a particular, high-profile title we were desperate to put in front of our judges, but it took us over six months to get hold of it from the publisher.
I’ve never quite got over the feeling of extreme disappointment on behalf of the 100 and more authors whose works, sweated and pored over for months, if not years, do not make the cut. They all, quite justifiably, believe that they have been let down, either by their publisher or by the award. But again, like any horse race, there are always hard-luck stories among the also-rans, and they must console themselves with the thought that but for their presence the race or literary contest would have been much less worth winning. Most authors take the rejection with great dignity. Occasionally one wants to argue about it. Once an author tried to fight a judge.
I have, along with the co-founder of the WHSBOTY, John Gaustad, probably read more sports books than anyone else over the past 25 years, and that can sometimes bring its own problems. We often say to each other, “Well, this was better done by such and such an author 18 or 19 years ago” or, “Weren’t there two or three books about this subject some years back?” – almost forgetting that since then a whole new generation of readers has appeared.
We have shortlisted seven titles this year, rather than the usual six, in reflection of the sheer quality of the competition. Included on the list is Gareth Thomas’s achingly honest autobiography Proud; the painfully dark Night Games by Anna Krien, which follows the rape trial of a young Australian sportsman; and the exhilaratingly uplifting Run or Die by Kilian Jornet, the incredible endurance runner.
Perhaps most thrillingly, the award this year can boast the most varied shortlist in its history. No book about figure skating or Aussie rules has ever featured at this stage of the award, endurance athletes have been comparatively thin on the ground, and books about sporting venues and the people who fill them rare indeed. We do have sports boasting previous winners, of course – including rugby and football – as well as three authors who have been shortlisted in the past: Simon Inglis, Bill Jones and Rob Steen, all worthy of their place on the shortlist next to the other finalists.
No matter which way it goes, I’m sure our ultimate winner will be an over-achieving, richly deserving sporting champion.
The 2014 shortlist
Bobby Moore: The Man in Full by Matt Dickinson (Yellow Jersey Press)
Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play by Simon Inglis (English Heritage)
Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury)
Run or Die by Kilian Jornet (Viking)
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien (Yellow Jersey Press)
Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport by Rob Steen (Bloomsbury)
Proud: My Autobiography by Gareth Thomas (Ebury Press)