My brother Dave rowed for the UK, my mum bowled googlies for Essex Ladies and my nephews Tom and Dan Hampton are professional cricketers. My son cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats and (this year’s injury permitting) my daughter will run the next London Marathon for Greenpeace. But I’m afraid when it comes to the sport gene I’m the missing link, unless you count shouting my way through a track relay or stressing over Andy Murray. I do, however, engage with character and psychology so I’m interested in sport as a subject for fiction. It can work well in movies. After all, it’s a form of action and not so different in its language from the battlefield. Even the brain sport of chess, which in the UK can’t shake off its rarefied public school image, is a war game – and war, like love, is a theme that has served Hollywood well. So The Thomas Crown Affair succeeded in making chess compelling as a new form of seduction. But I’m not sure it could be repeated, and the remake didn’t try. Among sporting misfires like Woody Allen’s Match Point and the flimsy Wimbledon with Paul Bettany, there have been box office successes and critical triumphs like Chariots of Fire. Although most have passed me by, I know Kevin Costner has a strong track record (sorry), but while Bull Durham and Tin Cup use humour as well as pathos as the ‘old guy’ strives to overcome past failure and shine, it’s Field of Dreams that really scores by using baseball as a vaguely mystical metaphor in an emotional film about loss and longing. Essentially sports movies only connect with a mass audience when they’re really about struggle, courage, sacrifice and love – but what about novels? What are the difficulties and has anyone overcome them on the page?
Well, yes! Beginning in the chess category, there’s Through the Looking Glass! I’m married to an ex-UK champion (under-21) who can’t believe I could forget. As Wikipedia explains: “Most main characters in the story are represented by a chess piece… with Alice herself being a pawn. The looking-glass world is divided into sections by brooks … represent the divisions between squares on the chessboard, and Alice’s crossing of them signifies advancing of her piece one square.” This made me wonder whether sport translates best into fiction with an allegorical fantasy treatment. But this description hardly fits Nabokov’s novel, The Defence, built on his knowledge of chess but also a depth of characterisation that he himself called ‘warm’. I understand, however, that the film adaptations have failed on both these levels.
Looking for other sports novels I find many titles that shout of cricket or football but few that ring bells. However, running offers a novel a different kind of space, because long distance running (see Alan Sillitoe) is essentially a journey, which is another word for the character arc that traditionally structures fiction. So however lonely the athlete may be if the writer limits his encounters on the run, interior action can supplement the physical locations and flashback can open up the time frame. My Rachel in Just for One Day is a runner; if the bullies want to murmur some poison in her ear they’ll have to catch her first and her half-marathon for the Hospice is a victory in more ways than one. But it seems to me that a different kind of challenge is presented by a race so short these days that anyone taking ten seconds to finish has generally lost. Those of us who watch the sprints – and Usain Bolt has probably ensured that most of us do – are well used to the language of commentary (although some of us miss the extremist style of David Coleman, whose heart was at risk every time a Brit went for gold). So how does a novelist capture the drama without resorting to the tired but functional phrases we come to expect, issued in the heat of the moment when a writer aims to edit and refine, avoid repetition and above all use language vivid enough to create the action without the visuals TV commentators only supplement?
That’s a question I asked myself when I wrote Lap of the Gods, set in Ancient Greece. The account of the sprint takes longer to read, no doubt, than the athletes take to run the race – and a thousand times longer to write! Here it is, one of the climaxes of the story, and my best shot:
Run, Damastor! Fly! Corinna’s neck was as high as she could lift it, her chest leaning forward, her thighs clinging to the front of the seat while her backside parted from the rest. Stones from a sling! Such force and so instant! And then the short Cretan was shouldering through the rest like a bull between horses. But only for a breath! There was no more than the length of an elbow between any of the athletes as they passed the first stake. It was hard, as they moved, to hold on to Damastor, towering a foot’s length behind the Cretan. Stride for stride, he and Melissus raced as one, as if linked by an invisible mechanism. Together they edged ahead, or did they? Still the Cretan held his ground between them, head down as they passed the fourth stake, the three of them apart from the rest. The Cretan’s pace slowed. He was wading now, his head rocking. Only two could win – two like palms of the same hand, paired but for thin air wedged between them.
Corinna stretched as she leaned, her view shuttered out by rising shoulders. And Damastor’s final stride hurtled him – head first, arms grasping, almost toppling – past the stake, a pace ahead! Surely? Had he won? Were the roars for him?
I suspect that however long I sweated over the words, the movie would do it better!