There's no doubting the marketing genius of an author who writes a novel about the lives of two rival British cyclists in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics - and releases it just before the big event.

But what makes Chris Cleave's new book Gold unusual is not so much its foresight as its subject matter: sport.

In fiction publishing, sport is widely regarded as a curse. There are plenty of theories bouncing around about this: that sports lovers don't read fiction; that sports don't cross borders or codes well (Americans won't read about cricket, and football fans won't read about archery); that novelists are damned if they explain the rules too thoroughly (thus alienating fans of the sport) or damned if they don't (alienating non-followers).

Or perhaps it's simply that nothing can beat the true stories that abound in real-life sport: of success and failure, of overcoming the odds, of good versus evil. That's why we're all pasted to our TV screens this week. How could a novelist portray despair more eloquently than the expressions on the faces of the New Zealand women's rowing four after their oar snapped?


One of the most acclaimed literary sports books ever written is 1975's The Fight, by Norman Mailer, about the legendary Rumble in the Jungle clash between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali. It's got everything except a romance subplot. And it's all true. Who needs fiction?

But, of course, the best sports novels (and memoirs) aren't really about the sport. They're about strong, obsessive characters with great strengths and great frailties, and their sacrifices and setbacks in pursuit of their dreams.

In The Damned Utd (2006), author David Pearce created a vivid fictionalised portrait of former Leeds United football manager Brian Clough, who lasted just 44 days in the job in 1974. The story is less about football and more about the self-destruction of a troubled man.

The Book of Fame (2000) by New Zealander Lloyd Jones fictionalises the 1905 Invincibles tour of Great Britain. Though it has plenty of rugby coverage to keep fans happy, its strength is in imagining the bemusing off-the-field experiences of a bunch of young colonials who become unlikely celebrities as they blitz the home teams and change the game forever.

What defines a sports novel, anyway? You could technically say that The Hunger Games is a sports novel. And how about Jilly Cooper's 1991 blockbuster Polo? (Incidentally, both novels have been credited with reinvigorating interest in the sports of archery and polo, respectively.)

The difficulty of selling sports novels was illustrated a couple of years ago when Mills & Boon published a series of eight romance books with rugby as a theme. It was an odd collaboration with the UK Rugby Football Union designed to encourage more women to follow the game.

I'm not sure how that worked out for them, but the book titles alone acknowledged that their readers weren't really interested in the rucking. There was The Prince's Waitress Wife, The French Tycoon's Pregnant Mistress, Blackmailed in the Greek Tycoon's Bed, The Ruthless Billionaire's Virgin, The Italian Count's Defiant Bride... And the tackling and mauling portrayed on the covers wasn't like anything I've seen in a rugby match.

Most tellingly, the heroes were more likely to be billionaires having sex in the corporate boxes of Twickenham than the cauliflower-eared stars of the scrum. Mills and Boon editor Jenny Hutton bluntly explained that full-time athletes were too focused on their sport to make great lovers (and this is before English captain Mike Tindall's royal indiscretions in New Zealand last year).

"We didn't want all the heroes to be rugby players - we needed heroes who could devote their time to the heroines," she said.

What are your favourite sporting novels?