By DAVID HOOD
Wednesday 31st October: Pontefract, South Yorkshire, may not exactly be a hotbed of literary masterpieces, but that may all be about to change due to the memoirs of world number one squash player James Willstrop, who’s biographical account of a year in the punishing world of professional squash, Shot and a Ghost, is among seven books shortlisted for the hugely prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
Known as the ‘Bookie Prize’, the award is the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize, and the nomination of Willstrop’s self-published memoirs is huge recognition for a sport and an athlete who was denied the chance of an Olympic medal in 2012 by the oversight of the IOC.
While Andy Murray lifted Olympic Gold during London 2012, Willstrop watched from his Leeds home and tweeted his congratulations. He would have been among the favourites to lift another medal for team GB in London 2012, had squash been an Olympic sport.
But, this is not an athlete who dwells on what might have been. Willstrop, a fan of Oscar Wilde, is clever, ironic and humorous. He can also be very poignant, especially when talking about his relationship with his squash coach father, Malcolm.
There is irony also, in the fact that one of the other shortlisted books this year is The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s account of the drug addled era of Lance Armstrong. The irony is that Willstrop is a very different type of sporting hero. Plying his trade in what is arguably as punishing a sport on the body as cycling, Willstrop competes not only ‘clean’ but as a vegetarian. At 6’4 and striving for physical perfection on a bowl of cereal, one could acknowledge that his really is a body treated as a Temple.
What might surprise sports fans is the value of winning the Bookie Prize will have for Willstrop. The £24,000 cash prize is worth more than the winner purse for either of the sports most prestigious titles, the British or US Open. Yet another contrast between squash and its racket counterpart, tennis.
In a physical, mass participation sport – more people play squash each week than play tennis, rugby or cricket, Willstrop stands out as a gracious gentleman as much as a sportsman. Should ‘Shot and a Ghost’ win this title, it will be a justifiable reward for an athlete who cares more about his body and his soul than the trappings of glory.
Zena Wooldridge, Chair, England Squash & Racketball commented; “Our congratulations go to James for this marvellous achievement, which is also wonderful profile for squash and its current Olympic campaign. It also demonstrates the breadth of talent within the game, and we wish James well in the final award process. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.”
William Hill Sportsbook of the Year: The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; footballer and chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle, who joins the judging panel for the first time; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.