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Sporting heroes from fiction



As of the last week, we've got a brand new set of heroes. But as their names enter the history books, what of the sporting pin-ups we love already? One of the joys of the Olympics for non-sports fans has been the number of touching and inspirational personal stories to have emerged. Well, needless to say, writers have been on to this for some time, and readers of sporting fiction will be quite used to the tears, the trauma, and the nail-biting.

Quenton Cassidy is the lovable hero of John L Parker's 1978 classic, Once a Runner, based on the author's experiences of competitive running. Cassidy is an American student who dreams of running a four-minute mile;he's only one second off when the Vietnam War breaks out. After taking part in a student protest, he is suspended from the team. Things can only get better after he loses his scholarship and his girlfriend, and the arc of the story then follows a familiar sports fiction trajectory, as he fights back to run the race of his life. An inspirational tale of overcoming the odds, made doubly so by the fact that Parker originally had to publish this himself.

Hailed by The Times as "probably the best novel ever written about sport", The Damned Utd became a word-of-mouth hit in the summer of 2006. Written by David Peace, it tells a fictionalised account of the 44 days that Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United in 1974. This may not seem like an obviously thrilling episode, but through imagined diary extracts, Clough's character emerges as a big-hearted but flawed Shakespearean hero, drunk and magnificent. The book is about fathers and sons, the 1970s, and football before it was swallowed by bling, but the stand-out hero is Clough.

Freya North's fourth novel, Cat, tells the story of a 29-yearold female journalist tasked with covering the Tour de France. Having split up from her long-term boyfriend, Cat is thrust into a tumult of shaven-legged men in bulging lycra. Admittedly this is chick lit on two wheels but, like a lot of North's writing, it's funny and engaging and has an endearing ingênue heroine at its heart.

Olympic fencing is a direct descendant of the swash-buckling duels of the 17th century, whose greatest proponent was D'Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. Actually written in 1844, Alexander Dumas' novel was based on the diaries of the real-life Monsieur d'Artagnan, which he borrowed from a Marseilles library - though Dumas was a keen fencer himself. The book's title refers to his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis - 'One for all, and all for one!' - who are arguably now more famous than D'Artagnan.

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