Key Points:

You tend to think that people who compete at the Olympics are impressive performers, impressive people. But with someone like Scottie, it's all built on clay."

Hamilton-raised Norman Harris, a former New Zealand Herald sportswriter, is speaking about the subject of his most recent book, Scottie.

It is not your usual sports book about an all-conquering champion, and that is its value. Running is merely the backdrop to the real drama of Aucklander Neville Scott's life.

It is the story of a damaged young man, a womaniser, an alcoholic, a double Olympian, who ultimately became a survivor.

So incredible were the facts of Scott's life that Harris felt it necessary to declare on the book's cover that it is non-fiction ("a true story of ambition, weakness and redemption") lest it be mistaken for a novel.

It's a story he's longed to write. "I just knew it was a dramatic story, a strong story, a magic story."

Along the way, it skirts neither the bleakness nor grit of the reality of alcoholism ... nor the black humour, such as when Scottie, running through carriages intent on leaping to his death from the last one is foiled by the train pulling into the station.

"When I was writing about a drinking competition, I would be half wincing, thinking this isn't really very attractive. But there was something about Scottie, about his spirit, that appealed to people and people responded to him. He seemed to revel in these dramas, even when he was in the pits of alcoholism."

The wonder is that Scott drank so heavily (he'd visit the pub before a race), yet achieved so much. And that he reached such heights and yet is unknown beyond the sport.

Scott's running gave his early life validity, and the demands of training helped him fight his affliction. But his style of racing mirrored how he lived - he ran scared.

"He didn't have it in him to plan a race and carry it through properly," says Harris.

Which makes his successes including victories over Sir Murray Halberg, and posting in his last race the world's fifth-fastest three miles the more remarkable.

Scott was the 8-year old whose mother walked out, the teenager with the stutter, the young adult who sought to mask his profound insecurity in braggadocio, in dramatic performances (he could run himself to unconsciousness) and in a glass; a drink or two to feel "normal", a few more to become the wittiest man in the bar.

At times he would be crushed by the pressure. He would brag that he was going to beat Halberg, run a record time, then think "Christ, what have I said" and not turn up for the race, although it was the national championship

But there was one perfect race. It was during his second coming as a runner. At 21 he'd run a New Zealand record for seventh in the 1500m final of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Then he'd disappeared into the bottle.

Now, eight years later had one shot at selection to join middle distance stars Halberg and Bill Baillie in the three mile event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The race was the national championships in Napier, and his chief rival was a rising talent named Geoff Pyne who, says Harris, was as reliable and calculating a performer as Scottie was headstrong and unreliable. The winner would go to the Olympics.

Scott stayed privately rather than in a hotel. His hosts learned his chequered history, that the race was make or break. They brought their friends to cheer him on and saw him perfectly execute a race plan. "Everything was special," says Harris.

Tokyo was the tipping point. An injured Harris finished last in his heat, slipped away from the village, found himself staring at a line on a menu that read "Saki 25".

"No prohibition order on the wall with his name on it," writes Harris. "No one will ever know. There won't be any consequences. No one will be disappointed."

Each chapter is an evocative and significant scene and it's no surprise Harris first wrote the story as a film script.

Scott's moment of triumph was at the Tokyo Olympics, but in a sake bar rather than a race.

Harris's journalism career began at the New Zealand Herald as a young news reporter. He was soon transferred to the sports department where he was assigned athletics, as he recalls, without any great excitement.

That changed in the space of 60 minutes during the 1960 Rome Olympics. Back in New Zealand, radio tuned to the BBC World Service, Harris was expecting success for Halberg but not for another young athlete named Snell.

Then came the headline: "At the Olympics, New Zealand has won two gold medals."

"I can hardly ever recall that without getting choked up", says Harris, who is visiting New Zealand from his home in Durham, England to promote Scottie.

Rome began a golden period for New Zealand athletics, and Harris was there to chronicle it and get to know the characters who inhabited the sport.

He went on to become noted for his sportswriting for London's Sunday Times and Times and for his books. He was a runner himself; he won a British age-group orienteering title and was organiser of the Sunday Times' national fun run which began in 1978, grew to 30,000 contestants and lasted 15 years until it was overwhelmed by the London Marathon.

Of all the characters he encountered, none was larger or more conflicted than Neville Scott. Scott died in 2005, aged 69.

What would he think of the book? Harris: "Oh yes, he'd have liked it. He told me his story so enthusiastically. He appreciated the drama."

* Scottie, Last Side Publishing, distributed by Nationwide books, recommended retail $24.99; www.scottiethebook.com