They did a good day’s work, whoever thought to pair these two. Kellie Harrington’s story isn’t straightforward, not in sporting terms anyway. She wasn’t hot-housed in the system as an emerging boxer; she left school at 14; she wasn’t conventional in any sporting sense. A sports journalist would have produced a different book than a Booker-winning novelist.
The best of the book comes at the start and at the end. Harrington’s teenage tearaway days are something she regularly hinted at in interviews over the years without ever going into proper detail. She has always joked that she was keeping it back for the book – she wasn’t joking at all, it turns out. Here, she lays it all out in full. Though she never says it herself, you’re left in no doubt that it would have taken very little for her to have fallen by the wayside.
[ Kellie Harrington: ‘There were three escape routes, if we needed to do a quick run’ ]
Through the middle part, it occasionally falls into the sports book’s well-worn path of least resistance – dutiful reports of matches and tournaments and opponents. To some extent, this is unavoidable. You can’t, after all, rightly ignore the thing that brought Harrington to national significance. But run-of-play can get a bit repetitive. The best sports books are ruthlessly choosy with what to include and what to gloss over.
It’s a minor complaint, though. Doyle has captured the full Kellie experience here, all heart and laughs and a mouth like a sailor. There are some gorgeous passages in which she explains the nitty-gritty of boxing – the sacred ritual of wrapping the hands, the sweat of the last half-kilo to make weight, the weirdness of fighting your friends. All building to the glory of her Olympic gold medal.
[ Kellie Harrington: ‘I was very confused about my sexuality – and not afraid to be openly confused’ ]
The closing 50 pages or so are all about Tokyo and the sense of destiny coming closer. She changed over the years from being wracked with doubt to infused with purpose, beating impostor syndrome as readily as anyone she met in the ring. As a result, the day of the final and its aftermath are emotional, so aching and bewildering that it’s impossible to keep a dry eye.