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This sporting life

8th December 2011 - Steve Newman


This year's winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award highlights the mental health problems that can affect top-level sportsplayers. Combined with the tragic death of Welsh national Football team manager Gary Speed the day before the award ceremony, it brings much needed scrutiny to an issue that's been largely overlooked.


A LIfe Too Short by Ronald RengOn Monday 27th November, Ronald Reng's biography of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short, won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Enke was the German National Goalkeeper who took his own life in 2009.


The tragedy became headline news internationally while the Germans found themselves asking why a man who had just become their first choice keeper was willing to kill himself. His death was the start of a discussion about depression that the book continues.


In Britain it had been a year since Marcus Trescothick had opened up about it his own battle with the black dog in Coming Back To Me. It won the 2008 William Hill and, by the time of Enke's death, we were beginning to understand that sportsman could suffer with depression. The taboos around the subject were beginning lift.


When Robert Enke killed himself, I was having my own battle with clinical depression and, as shocking as it sounds now, I was oddly unsympathetic. Depression is a selfish illness, when you are deep in the mire, you become detached from other people's pain. It's about your pain; nobody else matters.


There is though an opposite, when you come out of the dark mood, you're far more empathic towards a fellow sufferer. So reading the book now I'm experiencing a delayed reaction. I can see how he felt. What the book is also incredibly good at is explaining how there was more than one victim of depression.


A Life Too Short is as much about Teresa Enke's struggle with her husband's illness as it is about Robert's. It's Teresa who tries to cajole, push, bully and solve her husband's illness and tragically it's Teresa who has been left behind. That is an aspect of depression that those with depression don't see at the time, the effect on others.


It has been argued that the macho culture of team sports has treated the subject with at best a lack of sympathy and at worst prejudice and disdain. Depression though is not an easy condition to understand. Even for those who suffer with the illness. Sufferers aren't open about it because we don't know how to be and those who don't suffer from it and have never had contact with it don't because depression is an alien concept. So over the years the condition became buried, a taboo subject just because nobody new how to talk about it.


Beware of the Dog by Brian MooreIn that context, the William Hill Award has helped chip away at attitudes by giving recognition to books that take on this subject directly. Last year's winner was Beware of the Dog, England rugby player Brian Moore's autobiography, which mentioned that he had been sexually abused as a child.


There has been some criticism of the fact that the judges have again chosen books about the struggles, rather than glory, of sportsman, but the sad coincidence of the tragic death of Gary Speed the day before the announcement has again shown how baffled people are when sportsman are shown to be as vulnerable as the rest of us. Both sport and the William Hill Award have played a very direct role in opening up some very difficult subjects and providing a chance for more than sympathy but help and understanding.


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