This 40 year-old classic deserves to be read, to see how much as changed, and how much hasn't. While gay men in the USA no longer have to fear being arrested for simply being gay, the sports world is still full of homophobia and discrimination.
The story of “The Front Runner” is told by Harlan Brown, a ‘late bloomer’ who served in the marines, got married and had children before finally admitting his attraction to men. He is forced to resign his position as track coach at a prestigious university after unfounded accusations of making advances on one of his students, and is only beginning to put his life back together at a new school when the story begins.
Harlan's life is in for big changes when three young runners show up in his office one winter day. Billy, Vince and Jacques are world class athletes with Olympic hopes that have been kicked off the team at the University of Oregon just for being gay. Harlan somewhat reluctantly agrees to take them on and begins the tough job of training them.
The job gets even tougher when Harlan finds himself ever more attracted to Billy, yet tries to abide by his rule of never getting involved with his athletes, even though it appears Billy reciprocates the feelings. The mutual attraction proves hard to resist and a relationship develops, but keeping it from the press and track authorities proves impossible.
“The Front Runner” is a story that rings amazingly true. You may find at times that you have to remind yourself that this is a fictional story and not an autobiography. The events sound so much like they could have happened that it's easy to believe they did.
While the main theme of homosexuality in sports is what makes this book such a classic, there are many other interesting observations which you may find quite prescient in a book first published in 1974. Even before the advent of social media, the characters raise the question of the right for public figures such as athletes to have a private life. Then there is the observation of one of the characters on the reaction to the gunning down of one of the other characters:
The world was in its usual state of futile guilt. We have all become so accustomed to violence that the hand-wringing was now just a social ritual.
I was reading this passage within a couple of days of the latest mass shootings in San Bernadino. Of all the things that have changed in the 40 years since this book was published, it's very sad to think this is one thing that hasn't.
“The Front Runner” is available from Amazon