the dirtiest race in history. richard moore. wisden sports writing. hardback 326pp £18.99

the dirtiest race in history

it's comforting to inhabit a niche, even if, or perhaps especially because, the inhabited niche is a small corner of a larger, yet still petite niche. in the grand scheme of things, cycling is a very small part. some would wish it to become a much larger, though still miniscule part, while others secretly or openly delight in the fact that they have pledged allegiance to just such a niche and would prefer that it remained that way. for the ego is munificently pandered to if thought of as special.

thus it is with cycling. though in no way representative of the grand whole of which we are all a part, accept that around 5,000 persons walked through the entrance to the very first scottish bike show in the secc in 2011. if we take scotland's population as hovering around five million, that's quite a small percentage who took it upon themselves to go look at some bicycles. position that as a percentage of the population of great britain and my grasp of fractions leaves me floundering in front of the calculator.

we do, however, share common interests with others and concomitantly, common problems. these may be perceived as pertaining to traffic matters, those of a social nature, but particularly when narrowed to the realms of sport, drug related matters. despite the daily newspapers declaring open season on cycling whenever the date nears that of the tour de france prologue, contrary to common apprehension, other sports suffer from drug cheats too.

this is not an area in which i find great comfort, and i will readily admit to a head in the sand policy when that which obeys the law of omerta raises its ugly head. this does not, though i may have been accused of such, sustain due to any sympathy with or for, those who take or have taken performance enhancing drugs. i have no perfromance to speak of in the first place and thus no need to indulge. nor do i require to carve out a living in any form of competitive sport, so the need has never surfaced in personal life. the crux of my evading the subject is a lack of any real informed expertise; basically, i know not of which i might write.

while this has not prevented scores of individuals casting their opinions upon the great unwashed through blogdom or twitter, i cannot justify doing likewise. even the niche of cycling in which i find myself, features too complex a series of reasons and justifications, however weak, for drug use in the sporting melee. but, as we may well be aware, this is not purely endemic to the world of cycling.

author richard moore first brought himself to our attention via his excellent opening narrative concerning the search for robert millar, a volume which subsequently did not find him favour with the great climber, but for reasons not allied to his superb writing. he has gone on from strength to strength (sorry, a really poor cliche) via books such as slaying the badger, heroes, villains and velodromes and sky's the limit, and to my mind has proved himself one of the finest writers of modern times. to date, all the above have concerned aspects of the little niche world i described in my opening paragraph, yet here he is, stepping out of one niche and right, slap, bang into another; the world of athletics, in particular, the 100 metre sprint.

but in this case, it's not just the 100 metre sprint in general, but the dirtiest race in history as ascribed in the book's title, between america's carl lewis and canada's ben johnson. as races go, the 100 metre sprint occupies considerably less time than any cycling event. currently the record belongs to usain bolt at 9.58 seconds, but the race to which moore's narrative eventually travels, took several fractions of a second longer. 9.79 seconds to be precise. (or not, as the reader will eventually discover). and perhaps at this point it is right and proper to consider just how a period of less than ten seconds can be turned into a hardback book of considerably more than 300 pages. there's only one token illustration for heaven's sake.

in the light of the previous, it's where the men are separated from the boys, or perhaps more aptly, where the readers are separated from those who are authors, for this truly is a work of masterful construct, research and narrative. i am firmly of the opinion that, when attending a stage play or presentation, if the eye starts drifting towards the scenery and how well or badly formed it might be, either the playright or actors are failing in their duty. similarly a work of this magnitude; the reader should be carried headlong into the chronicle, blissfully unaware of the countless air miles racked up in the process of forming each chapter. this is a book that fulfils that to the very last word. however, in the process of reviewing same, it would be most ungracious, not to say remiss of me, to point out that richard moore has elevated the art to a whole 'nuther level.

for in truth, i could care less about how fast anyone can manage to put one foot in front of the other over a distance of 100 metres, yet it would not be overstating the case to admit i was totally captivated from moore's opening paragraph until reaching the substantial index at the back. in order to attain a purpose in life, an author ought to be able to hold the attention well beyond any alotted time allocated for reading. i read chapter after chapter until the bathwater went cold, then i sneaked in a few more pages while i waited for the tea to cook. and i'm not sure that i exaggerate when i portend that i may be the only person on the planet that richard did not interview about those 9.79 seconds.

you will be unsurprised to learn, particularly after my convoluted opening words, that the stars of the story are not necessarily those of lewis and johnson, but those of performance enhancing drugs, those who used them, and those who promoted their use. lewis comes out of the story, if not smelling of roses, then certainly smelling a lot less of manure than his canadian opponent (even if the jamaican, johnson, was only an adopted canadian). neither do the figures in power at the international olympics committee or the international athletics federation leave the building in clean white suits. and though the late nineties and early noughties have hardly seen cycling's greatest contribution to a carefree sporting society, some ten to fifteen years earlier, so-called amateur athletics was gaining a head start.

it would surely have been easier for moore to have simply recounted the racing, the athletics and the drama without examining the culture behind the events that brought drug use to the almost inextricable level that it appears to have achieved. that would doubtless have made for an exciting enough drama in itself, if unavoidably leaving the story in pure black and white. it is, however, the grey areas in between, that makes the dirtiest race in history the undoubted triumph that it is. there is ultimate joy for the reader in following the unravelling of a whole string of apparently intertwined conspiracies; if you are unaware of how that 100 metre final in the seoul olympics of 1988 panned out, or if the result would be one of your aces in a local pub quiz, you owe it to yourself to read what is probably the finest sports book published this year.

to find a comparative work of excellence, you may have to revisit matt rendell's 2006 opus the death of marco pantani to find anything as brilliant as this. who cares if we're cyclists and lewis and johnson aren't? compulsive and compulsory reading.

tuesday 26th june 2012


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