Olympic Gangster – the legend of José Beyaert, Matt Rendell (2009)

A footnote in cycling’s history is the connective tissue for a thrilling panorama of twentieth-century Columbia

Mainstream 9781845963989 352pp paperback £11.99

Examining José Beyaert’s palmarès one might wonder whether he justifies a biography of this magnitude? The Frenchman won the Olympic road race at the 1948 London games – a time when this event stirred little interest in professional cycling’s heartlands. And, in 1952 he won the Tour of Colombia. That Équipe waited on a letter from Beyaert himself before it broke news of his South American triumph to readers in his homeland, is an indication of the standing of this race in France.

His is, nonetheless, an extraordinary story, and it is the extensive fleshing-out to which Rendell treats us, that really makes this book.

Beyaert spent half a century in Columbia after his race victory there. For a while he cycled, or coached cyclists, then he sold cosmetics, traded in emeralds, manufactured furniture, ran a restaurant and prospected in the jungle for rare woods. In addition, it is possible that he played a role in the nascent trade smuggling cocaine and heroin and, acted as a contract killer.

In fact, far more than being a book about Beyaert, this is a portrait of Columbia during the second half of the twentieth century. Rendell makes frequent explanatory digressions into subjects as varied as: the era when Columbian football existed outside international control, and therefore attracted a galaxy of foreign stars to play there; the growth of the recreational drugs trade and the pivotal roles played by the French and Columbian crime gangs, the mineral and arboreal exploitation of Columbia, and the history and literature of France’s South American penal colonies.

And that is just a flavour.

Pedal purists will quickly be frustrated by Rendell’s readiness with a potted history, and evocative, off-narrative colour. For everyone else, however, it is a riveting ride though an extraordinary part of the world that the obviously obsesses the author as it did his subject.

At times Olympic Gangster has the feel of one of the best of William Boyd’s novels, The New Confessions, or Any Human Heart, say. A fascinating character, several times plays witness to historically momentous events during the course of a full life, lived in a series of dramatically different worlds. Except, of course, this is a true tale – or a tale as true as could be assembled from fragmentary evidence, a dizzying array of witnesses and, a yarning central character.

You may start this volume with little knowledge of nor care for Columbia. Complete the book and it is impossible not to have become enthralled by the country and fascinated by Beyaert who lived his life there as an endless adventure.

PS Feb 10

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