There are those of us with more than a clutch of grey hairs around the temples who will recognise the name Otto Peltzer. German. Even from dated black-and-white photographs, he looks a fabulous runner. Pre-war world record holder. Wonder what happened to him?
His Own Man, a fascinating, wonderfully-researched and lovingly-written biography provides readers with more than an update on Peltzerâ€™s whereabouts after he finally hung up his spikes. The back-story moves effortlessly from Weimar Germany to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi death camps (Peltzer spent four years in the Mauthausen concentration camp), through to the end of the war, a divided Germany, Peltzerâ€™s enforced exile, his work as a coach of underprivileged children in India before his death from heart failure in 1970.
In between times, Peltzer competed at two Olympiads (in 1928 and 1932), secured national records in disciplines ranging from the 400m hurdles to the 1,500m and registered four world records in the 500m, 800m, 1,000m and, perhaps most spectacularly, in the 1,500m.
The latter of these records, established in 1926, came in Berlin after he had had two false starts; Peltzerâ€™s time of 3:51 was a remarkable 1.6 seconds faster than the previous world record. No wonder he later called it â€˜The Glorious Dayâ€™, but he was a modest man, an academic who preferred to shun the limelight (he avoided celebrating his 1,500m record because he had to run the 800m anchor leg for his club the following day).
The authors, each of whom represented Great Britain at the Olympics, have created a fresh, intellectually stimulating template for the modern sporting biography. Every page is testament to their research and linguistic prowess (much of their source material was in German); each fact has clearly been checked several times over.
But thereâ€™s another dimension to Peltzerâ€™s gripping story: he was also gay, a characteristic which, in Nazi Germany, was likely to result in a slow death, often preceded by ritual humiliation. Peltzerâ€™s time at Mauthausen was intended to â€˜re-educateâ€™ him, to rehabilitate him back into â€˜normalâ€™ society.
Otto Peltzerâ€™s story is as far from the standard, sanitised sporting biography you could get. If you enjoy a heady mix of sporting excellence, political upheaval, economic history and eventual redemption, youâ€™re unlikely to read a better book. Buy it.