Runner sprints away from the facts

Book review by Randall Northam: Barefoot Runner by Paul Rambali

I tend to agree with Frank Keating, when he wrote in The Guardian a few weeks ago: “William Hill call it a ‘vintage’ year, their sports book of 2006 shortlist seems as conservative as usual – an Olympic history, two tracts on black champions, a prolix reverie of the fairways and, inevitably, another offering on ruddy cycling and/or drugs. Of the year’s welter of football books the only one which apparently comes up to scratch concerns the Anglo-Italian cultural divide.”

He went on to write: “That sort of yawn might appeal to lit-panel judges, but I cannot imagine a more rewarding , nor touching, social history, than Harry Potts: Margaret’s Story, a singular tale of English football in its, well, English pomp, published by the ever diligent, off-beat SportsBooks.”

Thanks Frank, I owe you a drink. You see, I left sportswriting around the same time it left me, and went into publishing sports books, naming my company, unimaginatively, SportsBooks. Yet I did not even consider entering anything from my list for the William Hill Sports Books of the Year Award, considering that small publishers have no chance.

The day after the Keating piece appeared in the newspaper, a woman from William Hill’s press office rang and asked why I hadn’t entered the book. The truth is, and Frank wasn’t to know, was that it was published too late for the 2006 prize. I may not have bothered to enter had it been published before the deadline, but rest assured it will be entered for 2007.

And to disprove my theory, there was one book from a small publisher on this year’s shortlist – Barefoot Runner by Paul Rambali – and by a coincidence it was the only one of the six that I’d already read. And the fact that I’ve read it tells you what a good book it is (qualifications later), because these days all I seem to read are synopses and manuscripts from would-be authors.

The reason I read Barefoot Runner is partly because the stand of the publisher, Serpents Tail, at the recent Frankfurt Bookfair was practically opposite mine and partly because it’s the story of Abebe Bikila, the Olympic marathon champion from 1960 and 1964, and athletics used to be my speciality.

Even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help but wince at times. I assume that the people who chose the awards shortlist were aware of three horrendous errors and decided either that the book was worth it despite them or that the rest of the books submitted were worse. Or, perish the thought, that the people who decide which are the best six sports books of the year do not have a true appreciation of sport.

Rambali was a rock journalist on the New Musical Express during the punk era and you can tell that his background is not in sport. I’d have been interested to find out his motivation for writing it and what his sources were, but there is no foreword so the book gives no clue to that.

To the errors first. Twice Rambali has 1,500 metres runners “going to their blocks”, once even in training.

Mistake No2 has the words used on the 1948 Olympics scoreboard all wrong. I know they are incorrect because next September I am publishing a book on the 1948 Olympics by Bob Phillips and our cover has a photo of the scoreboard. So it would not have been too hard for Rambali or his editor to check.

But the biggest error, and the one which in my opinion should disqualify the book from any other awards shortlist, has the author saying about the last London Olympics: “It was 1948 – hostilities had barely ended – but the British had built a brand new stadium…

Oops. As every schoolboy kno, the first football match at Wembley was the 1923 “white horse final”. And any schoolboys (or writers making schoolboy errors) who don’t know can buy Wembley – the complete record 1923-2000, published by… SportsBooks.

So should the Bikila book have been on the shortlist? If I’ve spotted those mistakes, will there be others? Does it matter? In the end, although it’s a beautifully written and a fascinating story, if you are writing about the well documented life of one of the 20th century’s great sportsmen, you do need to be accurate.

The author has taken much poetic licence, offering accounts of conversations between the main characters such as Onni Niskanen, the Finn who masterminded the early Ethiopian running programme, and Emperor Haile Selassie. How was this sourced? Was it sourced?

The author has also guessed at what the Emperor was thinking while he was alone, and offers up Bikila’s own deepest emotions after his paralysing road accident (Bikila died in 1973). This book is subtitled “The life of marathon champion Abebe Bikila”, so it gives all the appearance of being a straight-up biography: but where do the facts end and the fiction begin? Or does that not matter?

It is a rare book that has no mistakes, but these are so basic that you cannot forget them. And on a purely professional level, £11.99 for a 316-page “paperback original” is pushing it.

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