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Macho world of Australian sport: William Hill prize contender makes disturbing reading

Review

Anna Krien's Night Games is easily the most controversial contender for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2014, because while sport, albeit in Australia, does provides the backdrop, it is as much a book about the sexual abuse of women.

The starting point is the trial of a Australian rules footballer accused of rape following a party to celebrate the Melbourne club Collingwood's victory over city rivals St Kilda in the 2010 AFL Grand Final.  Except that the player concerned, given the pseudonym 'Justin Dyer' by the author, is not a member of the victorious team. In reality he is little more than a hanger-on, drawn into the spotlight after the complainant, whom Anna Krien calls 'Sarah Wesley', claims to have been raped in a hotel bedroom by two very high profile Collingwood players.  The incident with Dyer took place in an alleyway later.

Dyer was initially called as a witness, only to find himself on trial after the charges against the two stars were dropped.  Eventually, he is acquitted, the court unable to decide on the key element required for a guilty verdict, whether his sex with Wesley was or was not consensual.

It was the kind of case that has become somewhat commonplace in Australia, typically involving Aussie rules or rugby league players. In the space of a decade prior to the publication of Krien's book in Australia, there had been more than 20 such trials involving more than 50 players.  As Krien watches from the back of the court, she considers the relationship between sport, power and sex and in particular the moments at which they collide, as they clearly did during Collingwood's post-victory party in 2010.

The book is on one level a narrative account of Dyer's trial but on another a discourse on the subject of sexual negotiation and consent, looking at the circumstances in which the empowering bonds between sportsmen that are so fundamental to their success on the field turn sinister off it, and at the minefield of ambiguity that can occur when the objectives and motivations of the women who become involved in sexual encounters with testosterone-fuelled males at their moment of triumph are misinterpreted.

The book has its weaknesses.  The question of why the case against the two Collingwood stars is dropped is not pursued; nor does Krien seek to explain why the appetite for sexual conquest at the moment of victory is not shared by all players.

Its strengths, however, are many.  There is a fearlessness, for example, in the way Krien probes into areas of sporting culture to which sports writers would find it difficult to tackle, given the dynamic of their relationship with clubs and players.  What she finds makes disturbing reading.

It is an objective work, too.  Readers expecting a portrayal of all women as victims and all men as evil sexual predators will be disappointed in the way Krien resists following a prejudiced agenda. She confesses even that she found Dyer, the accused, a more appealing character than Wesley, the accuser.

Equally, though, there is no sense that in trying to find an explanation for why some sportsmen behave in an abhorrent way towards women she in any way seeks to justify it.  She will find favour with neither side at the extremes of the debate into which she enters, which is what makes Night Games an outstanding work.

The winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for 2014 will be revealed tomorrow (November 27), when the successful author will receive among other things a cash prize of £26,000,

Buy Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark heart of Sport, by Anna Krien (Yellow Jersey) from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The full shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2014

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