Fondly remembering 20 years of sports books

From Rob Bagchi, The Guardian
The William Hill Sports Book of the Year has come a long way in 20 years, much further than its short geographical trek across London from the cramped aisles at Sportspages to the cocktail bar in the flagship Piccadilly branch of Waterstone’s.

For the first 15 years of its life the annual announcement of the award was held in its spiritual home: the snug, scruffy bookshop where guests whose teeth had turned blue from quaffing the sponsor’s claret would be packed together like Tokyo commuters.

Those of us who worked there alternated between trying to get discreetly hammered and having to ferry copies of League Express or Grorty Dick out to customers on the forecourt who were livid that the shop was shut for the bash. Since its move, the event has lost the air of a raucous, smoky sauna, but the hubbub as the wait for the identity of the victorious book to emerge remains, as does the significance and prestige of the prize.

So, too, do the two men who set it up, Graham Sharpe of Hill’s and the founder of Sportspages, John Gaustad, who still chairs the judging panel. When they hand over the cheque to the winning author on Monday they can be proud of the impact their initiative has made. Having endowed Dan Topolski and Patrick Robinson with £500 apiece for True Blue back in 1989, they will mark the award’s anniversary by giving this year’s victor £20,000.

Given that the sales of the chosen book usually treble once it gets the bookmakers’ laurels on its cover, winning the award can now be a life-changing phenomenon for a writer, which is surely the best result a literary prize can achieve.

In recent years it has been attacked for its routine shortlists, which is traditionally a sign of how established an award has become. Any system used to cull the best six books from several hundred submissions is bound to lead to some compromise between the judges.

Think of anything picked by a panel and the Brummie sage Barry Taylor, from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, comes to mind. Warning of the perils of preferential voting when a ballot decreed the Düsseldorf hut had to be painted yellow despite no one having it as their first choice colour, he chirped: “That’s democracy, Dennis. Everybody gets what nobody wants.”

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Book’s a winner, but two years too late

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