In 1989 True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny was named the inaugural winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Co-authored by Daniel Topolski and Patrick Robinson it shone a light on the extraordinary events leading up to the 1987 Boat Race.
Thus began what is now the world’s longest established and most valuable – not to mention coveted – prize in sports writing which on Tuesday 27th November will see a 30th book join an illustrious list of winning publications.
Ahead of a reception at BAFTA in London’s West End to announce the 2018 winner, we spoke to co-founder and chair of the judges Graham Sharpe to find out more about an awards that just keeps on giving for sports fans everywhere who like nothing more than a classic read to complement their spectating.
We began in the mid 1980s as Graham – then in the early stages of a career with William Hill that would see him become their PR guru for many years – recounted how having been at the Booker Prize ceremony he had often wondered why there was not a similar awards devoted to sports writing. It was shortly after that Graham found a like mind in the shape of John Gaustad who ran Sportspages, a shop off Charing Cross Road in London, which was unique in its niche of selling only sports books and fanzines.
With a budget via William Hill and a venue in Sportspages the remaining part of the jigsaw was to enlist the support of panel of founding judges and with a quartet of literary heavyweights in the form of Hugh McIlvanney, Cliff Morgan, Harry Carpenter and Ian Wooldridge – all giving their time in lieu of a slap-up lunch – came instant credibility. Sadly John Gaustad died in 2016 having passed over the chairman’s reins to Graham a year earlier, but not before the awards had long since cemented themselves as a truly celebrated prize in the sporting calendar.
This year’s awards saw a record number of 141 entries become a 17-strong longlist after Graham – himself a prolific author with some 30 novels to his name – had run his expert eyes over every single one of them. No mean feat and just some of the 2000+ books Graham has read in the name of #WHSBOTY duties since 1989.
With this year’s judging panel – forming the aforesaid Hugh McIlvanney (longevity of service by the judges is a cornerstone of the awards), fellow writers Alyson Rudd and Mark Lawson together with broadcasters John Inverdale and Danny Kelly and retired professional footballer Clarke Carlisle – duly marshalled to read through the longlist, 17 books became a magnificent 7 that will battle for the ultimate prize of a £30,000 cheque, a free £2,000 bet and day at the races; not to mention the all-important accolade of 2018 winner to join a superlative roll call of sports books from the last three decades.
This year’s shortlist is made up of books from the world of boxing, darts, football, golf, rugby, swimming and the Olympic Games and has the makings of the perfect sporting Christmas present list. In alphabetical order of author:-
Fear and Loathing on the Oche: A Gonzo Journey Through the World of Championship Darts by King ADZ (Yellow Jersey)
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (Simon & Schuster)
The Boy on the Shed by Paul Ferris (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee by Paul D. Gibson (Mercier Press)
A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory (Particular Books)
Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes (The Bodley Head)
Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream by Ben Ryan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Who will win? The decision has been made after what by all accounts is an always passionate annual debate between the judges – taking place last Monday night over dinner – and the secret is being held tightly until all is revealed at the BAFTA reception. Whoever takes the spoils will be a sports writer par excellence and for aspiring writers everywhere Graham gave us his unique insight into the literary skills required to fit the mould. Namely a journalists’ ability to see a story coupled with a writers’ ability to tell it and possessing a succinct turn of phrase to uniquely resonate with the reader. One such example? The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy by Joe McGinniss which made the #WHSBOTY shortlist in 1999 and which remains Graham’s favourite book in the long history of the awards.
Stay tuned to the @BookiePrize Twitter feed at lunchtime on Tuesday 27th November for news of the 2018 winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year #WHSBOTY. And be sure to check the @sportonspec and @sportonspecLDN social media channels after the announcement where we’ll have a competition for two of our followers to win a signed copy of the winning book.