Ian O’Riordan: Sporting autobiographies not telling the full story

It’s not easy to get a proper perspective on one’s career what career is still ongoing

Because we don’t know when we’re going to die we all believe our life story has yet to be told. Even those of us who realise our lives are receding behind us. The best, we feel, is always yet to come.

Which is why there is usually something uneasy about reading a life story that is only partly or selectively complete, and nowhere is this more popular or evident than in the modern literary genre known as the sporting autobiography.

Con Houlihan always warned me against using the word 'launch' and 'book' in the same sentence: spaceships, he said, had a launch, missiles too, but never books. So, among the books to be sent out into the literary stratosphere in recent weeks are some already popular sporting autobiographies, which although sometimes presenting a life less ordinary are certainly a long way from being complete.

It used to be that the athlete or player was at least retired from their game, and with that could present some full or at least proper perspective on their sporting career, freed of the usual constraints.


Instead, sitting on top of the sporting bestseller list right now are two autobiographies by GAA footballers still in their playing days. What Do You Think of That? by Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy, is mostly reflective and while clearly coming to the end of his playing career, he still leaves some sense of unfinished business.

Less ordinary

Out of Control

by Tyrone footballer Cathal McCarron is certainly a tale of a life so far less ordinary, his gambling addiction and subsequent foray into gay pornography taking up far more words than anything that is played out on the football field. It also makes for some frequently uncomfortable subject matter, especially when the 28 -year-old McCarron reveals how an encounter with a teenager on Tinder resulted in a police investigation, after it transpired the girl was only 15.

Indeed it seems McCarron is still a little uncomfortable with some of his own subject matter. In an interview with Anton Savage on Today FM, he's asked about incidences of violence and aggression, what they had to do with gambling addiction, and McCarron appears unnerved.

“What’s the worry, what are you on about?” McCarron replies, as if not yet entirely reconciled with his own honesty.

Invariably, all such sporting autobiographies are described as “honest”, when often such honesty is not just selective but sometimes not necessarily entirely reflective of all the facts either.

Into this stratosphere also comes Rob Heffernan's new autobiography, Walking Tall, described as "honest, outspoken, and wearing his heart on his sleeve". Heffernan certainly does a lot of that, speaking out against all those who helped or hindered his career over the years.

At times it’s been a vicious and apparently endless struggle, weeks and months of hard training often undone with a sudden or simple injury, with that sending him into dark days of booze-fuelled depression.

Yet Heffernan’s life story – aged 38 and still competing – is ultimately one of rising above all circumstances no matter how grim to win gold in the 50km walk at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, and a belated but no less welcome Olympic bronze from the 50km walk in London 2012, presented at home in Cork on Thursday. That brought to an end a long drawn out process which saw the Russian gold medal winner stripped of his Olympic title for a doping offence.

Indeed Heffernan also presents some honest views on doping, including what he saw as perfectly justifiable links to his Spanish race walking coach Paquillo ‘Paco’ Fernández, who was banned for two years in 2010 for possessing banned performance enhancing drugs.

“I reminded him that he had been a good friend to me over the years,” writes Heffernan, “and that while I didn’t condone doping, whether he had or hadn’t, I would be there for him if he needed me.”

Heffernan also reveals for the first time his own scrape with the anti-doping authorities in 2014, testing positive for hydroxyethyl starch after a hip operation – a substance used as a clotting agent but also a masking agent for the banned substance EPO. He was cleared within days, however, when doctors involved in the operation indicated they had applied intravenous paracetamol, which contained hydroxyethyl starch, effectively applying what is now popularly known as a retrospective TUE.

“My life would have been destroyed,” he said, had that TUE not been applied. “Marion’s life [his wife] would have been destroyed, and my children’s lives too. Everything I’d ever worked for would have been gone forever.”

It's here Heffernan is also highly critical of Athletics Ireland for not being there for him, just like they had not been there in Moscow in 2013 when he won his gold medal. "How could you ever have any trust or faith in them after that?"

Yet that may not be entirely reflective of the work Athletics Ireland did behind the scenes, not just in the aftermath of Moscow 2013, but also in ensuring the correct protocols were applied at the time of his positive doping test. Or in backing Heffernan at the time of his controversial tweet about the Roma community, in 2013, which he described at the time as a "thoughtless outburst" that "had led to sleepless nights" (yet which is selectively left out of Walking Tall).

Some of this can sometimes be down to the selective honesty with or by the ghostwriter, which I know from experience can be a scary exercise. It's over 10 years now since ghostwriting Catherina McKiernan's autobiography, Running for My Life. For a variety of selective and reflective reasons the book I delivered was not the version that made it into print.

And I don't think Catherina would mind me saying that if Running for My Life was published today, it would be another different book altogether.

On reflection, such is life, eh?