20141111

Will tragic tale of Olympic champion John Curry scoop top prize this time for writer Bill Jones?

Three years after his first book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, Yorkshire writer Bill Jones is again a contender for the richest prize in sports literature.

Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry is one of seven contenders for the £26,000 cash prize that comes with the title of William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2014.

Jones, a former Yorkshire Evening Press journalist who became an award-winning documentary maker during 27 years with Granada Television, has put together the full story previously untold of Britain's 1976 Olympic figure skating champion, who died at the age of only 44 after contracting Aids.

Painstakingly researched over three years, it is a moving story about a man who was a deeply troubled and ultimately tragic figure but also a book that pays proper tribute to a competitor of enormous artistic talent and an extraordinary drive to be the best.

Jones reveals that Curry turned to skating only after his father, a factory owner in Birmingham who had been a prisoner of war in World War Two, refused to countenance his son training as a ballet dancer, which had been his wish as a boy growing up.

When Curry senior died when John was 16, an alcoholic found dead in a London hotel in an apparent suicide, the budding star of the ice reacted to the family tragedy as a moment of liberation.  He soon moved to London, taking up skating full time and signing up for ballet lessons as well.

His first major success came at the British Championships in 1970, by which time he had accepted his homosexuality and had an affair with a Swiss skating coach, despite encountering hostility in the skating world, which at that time favoured athleticism and masculinity as the qualities to be celebrated among male skaters and regarded Curry, whose strengths were his grace and musicality, as an effeminate who damaged the image of the sport.

He might have been driven out, but instead found a supporter in Carlo Fassi, the Italian coach who had already been successful with the women skaters Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.   Fassi was much less interested in Curry's sexuality than in his potential to win championships, and it was under Fassi's guidance in 1976 that Curry swept to the European, World and Olympic titles in the space of three months.

The euphoria of winning Olympic Gold in Innsbruck was punctured within 48 hours, however, when an interview appeared in the International Herald Tribune in which he admitted he was gay.  Curry was praised for his courage in going public about his sexuality at a time when such a declaration was without precedent among sportsmen yet claimed there had been no intention on his part to come out and that his trust had been betrayed, insisting that the comments he made about the barriers he had faced to be successful in a homophobic world were off the record.

Taunts about his sexual orientation followed, most painfully when he turned up to receive an award at a sports writers' Christmas bash only for the comic hired to provide some light-hearted entertainment to introduce him as "the fairy for the tree."

Curry remained in Britain to develop the John Curry Theatre of Skating but in his rage for perfection would frequently fall out with his skaters and the venture collapsed within less than a year, at which point Curry flew to New York, where he would remain for much of the next 14 years.

His relationships included one with the British actor, Alan Bates, but it was the many casual and sometimes violent affairs he conducted while living in New York's West Village that would prove his downfall.  Given the number of friends that developed Aids as the disease swept unchecked through America's gay community it was almost inevitable that he too would succumb.

In 1991, he returned to England alone, penniless and sick and went home to his mother's house in the Midlands, where Rita Curry would look after him until he died three years later, having taken the brave decision to go public about his illness.  Alan Bates was among those who visited him in the hours before he passed away.

Bill Jones was rightly hailed for producing a compelling narrative in The Ghost Runner, the story of the athlete John Tarrant, ludicrously denied a potentially successful career by petty officialdom, which was shortlisted for the William Hill prize in 2011.  The book saw Jones voted Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards in 2012.

In Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry he tackles a much bigger story, given the status Curry enjoyed as one of the country's sporting stars, and does it exceptionally well, drawing on hours of remarkably candid interviews, notably with Curry's mother and with his brother, Andrew, and on unfettered access to the skater's personal letters and other material he left behind.

Its place on the shortlist, from which the winner will be chosen ahead of the presentation ceremony on London on November 27, is richly deserved.

Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry, by Bill Jones, is published by Bloomsbury.  Buy it here from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Shortlist announced for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2014

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