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Zinovy Abramov
Zinovy Abramov

The Front Runner: A Novel that Inspired and Empowered LGBTQ+ Athletes and Activists

The Front Runner: A Novel

If you are looking for a novel that combines romance, sports, drama, history and social justice, you might want to check out The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren. This novel, published in 1974, tells the story of Harlan Brown, a closeted ex-marine running coach, and Billy Sive, a young gay runner who becomes his star athlete and lover. Together, they face the challenges of homophobia and violence in the sports world as they pursue their dream of competing in the 1976 Olympics.

The Front Runner: A Novel

The Front Runner is widely regarded as the first contemporary gay novel to achieve mainstream commercial and critical success. It sold over 10 million copies in 10 languages, reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and received rave reviews from both gay and straight publications. It also became a source of inspiration and empowerment for generations of LGBTQ+ athletes and activists who fought for their rights and inclusion in sports.

In this article, I will explore the plot, themes, messages, context, legacy and influence of The Front Runner. I will also share my personal opinion on why this novel is worth reading or rereading today.

The Love Story of Harlan and Billy

The heart of The Front Runner is the love story between Harlan Brown and Billy Sive. Harlan is a tough, conservative track coach who has been hiding from his past at a small liberal arts college in New York. He left a prestigious coaching position at Pennsylvania State University after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by a male student. He also divorced his wife after realizing that he was only attracted to men.

Billy is a brilliant young runner who has been expelled from the elite track program at the University of Oregon because he is gay. He is open about his sexuality and doesn't mind who knows it. He transfers to Prescott College with two other gay runners, Vince Matti and Jacques LaFont, to train with Harlan.

Harlan and Billy soon develop a mutual attraction that they try to suppress for months. They are afraid of ruining their coach-athlete relationship, jeopardizing their careers, and exposing themselves to danger. However, they eventually give in to their feelings and become lovers. They move in together, get married in a commitment ceremony, and adopt a dog named Betsy.

Running and coaching play a vital role in their relationship. They share a passion for the sport and a dedication to excellence. They support each other's goals and dreams, and challenge each other to grow and improve. They also use running as a way of expressing their love, intimacy, and freedom.

Their commitment ceremony is a significant moment in their relationship and in the novel. It is a symbol of their love, loyalty, and equality. It is also a statement of defiance and resistance against the homophobic society that denies them their rights and dignity. It shows that they are not ashamed of who they are and who they love.

The Homophobia and Violence in the Sports World

Harlan and Billy's love story is not a fairy tale. It is a realistic and heartbreaking portrayal of the homophobia and violence that they face in the sports world. They encounter discrimination and hostility from almost every direction: other athletes, coaches, officials, media, fans, sponsors, and even their own families.

They are constantly harassed, insulted, threatened, and attacked for being gay. They are excluded, isolated, and marginalized by the sports establishment. They are subjected to unfair rules, regulations, and tests that violate their privacy and integrity. They are denied opportunities, recognition, and support that they deserve.

The homophobia that they face has a negative impact on their mental and physical health. They suffer from stress, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, guilt, and shame. They struggle with self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-destructive behaviors. They experience injuries, illnesses, and addictions that affect their performance and well-being.

Despite all the obstacles and challenges that they face, Harlan and Billy show remarkable courage and resilience. They refuse to give up on their dreams of competing in the Olympics. They stand up for themselves and each other against their oppressors. They find allies and friends who support them along the way. They use their talent and hard work to prove themselves as athletes and as human beings.

Their journey culminates in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where Billy wins the gold medal in the 10,000 meter race. He is within meters of winning the 5000 meter race as well, when he is shot and killed by an anti-gay radical. His death is a shocking and tragic end to his life and his love story with Harlan.

The Legacy and Influence of The Front Runner

The Front Runner is not only a novel but also a phenomenon. It has left a lasting legacy and influence on literature, sports, culture, and society.

As a novel, The Front Runner broke new ground in gay literature by being the first positive portrayal of gay life to reach a mass audience. It challenged the stereotypes and prejudices that were prevalent at the time. It showed that gay people could be strong, successful, happy, and loved. It also showed that gay people could be heroes who could inspire others with their courage and achievements.

As a phenomenon, The Front Runner sparked a wave of awareness and activism for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion in sports. It inspired countless LGBTQ+ athletes to come out of the closet or to pursue their athletic careers despite the discrimination they faced. It also inspired many LGBTQ+ activists to campaign for changes in policies and attitudes that would make sports more safe and welcoming for LGBTQ+ people.

The Front Runner also reflected and challenged the social norms and attitudes of its time. It was published just a few years after the Stonewall riots , which marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement . It captured the spirit of liberation , pride ,and resistance that characterized the movement . It also exposed the reality of oppression , violence ,and injustice that LGBTQ+ people faced on a daily basis . It called for compassion , understanding ,and respect for LGBTQ+ people as equal members of society .

The Front Runner remains relevant and powerful today , even after almost five decades since its publication . It still resonates with readers who can relate to its characters , themes ,and messages . It still challenges readers to question their own beliefs , values ,and actions regarding LGBTQ+ issues . It still celebrates the beauty , joy ,and pain of love in all its forms .


that explores important themes and messages of identity, sexuality, and society. It is a novel that has a historical and cultural significance that transcends its time and genre. It is a novel that has a legacy and influence that continues to inspire and empower people today.


Here are some frequently asked questions about The Front Runner and their answers:

  • Who is Patricia Nell Warren and what inspired her to write The Front Runner?

Patricia Nell Warren was an American author, journalist, and activist who was born in 1936 and died in 2019. She was best known for writing The Front Runner and its two sequels, Harlan's Race and Billy's Boy. She was also a runner herself who competed in college and later coached young athletes.

She was inspired to write The Front Runner after reading an article about the expulsion of three gay runners from the University of Oregon in 1971. She wanted to write a novel that would portray gay athletes in a positive and realistic way, and that would also address the issues of homophobia and violence in sports. She also wanted to write a novel that would appeal to both gay and straight readers.

  • How accurate is the depiction of running and coaching in The Front Runner?

The depiction of running and coaching in The Front Runner is very accurate and detailed. Patricia Nell Warren used her own experience and knowledge as a runner and coach to create realistic and vivid scenes of training, racing, and competing. She also did extensive research on the history, rules, techniques, and strategies of running and coaching. She consulted with experts, interviewed athletes and coaches, and visited various locations and events related to running.

  • How did the public and critics react to The Front Runner when it was first published?

The public and critics reacted to The Front Runner with a mix of praise, curiosity, controversy, and backlash when it was first published. The novel received positive reviews from both gay and straight publications, such as The Advocate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It also became a bestseller that sold over 10 million copies in 10 languages. It attracted a wide range of readers who were drawn to its story, characters, themes, and messages.

However, the novel also faced some challenges and opposition from various sources. Some publishers rejected the novel because they thought it was too risky or controversial. Some bookstores refused to stock or display the novel because they feared losing customers or facing legal troubles. Some readers returned or burned the novel because they were offended or disgusted by its content. Some critics dismissed or attacked the novel because they thought it was poorly written or politically incorrect.

  • What are some of the other novels by Patricia Nell Warren or similar to The Front Runner?

Some of the other novels by Patricia Nell Warren are Harlan's Race (1994) and Billy's Boy (1997), which are the sequels to The Front Runner. They continue the story of Harlan Brown after Billy's death, as he deals with his grief, raises Billy's son, and fights for LGBTQ+ rights in sports and society. Another novel by Patricia Nell Warren is The Fancy Dancer (1976), which is about a gay Catholic priest who falls in love with a Native American dancer.

Some of the novels similar to The Front Runner are Dancer from the Dance (1978) by Andrew Holleran, which is about the gay subculture of New York City in the 1970s; The Charioteer (1953) by Mary Renault, which is about a gay soldier who falls in love with two men during World War II; The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison, which is about a black girl who suffers from racism and abuse in 1940s America; and Brokeback Mountain (1997) by Annie Proulx, which is about two cowboys who have a secret affair over several decades.

  • Is there a movie adaptation of The Front Runner or any plans for one?

There is no movie adaptation of The Front Runner yet, but there have been several attempts and plans for one. Patricia Nell Warren sold the film rights to the novel to Paul Newman in 1975, who intended to produce and star in the movie. However, the project was never realized due to various difficulties and disagreements. Patricia Nell Warren regained the film rights to the novel in 2000, and since then, she has been working with various producers and directors to make the movie happen. However, the project has faced many challenges and delays due to funding, casting, scripting, and other issues.

As of 2019, the latest update on the movie adaptation of The Front Runner is that Patricia Nell Warren's estate has partnered with a production company called Cinema Libre Studio to produce and distribute the movie. The movie is expected to be directed by Brett Leonard, who is known for his work on The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity. The movie is also expected to feature some changes and updates from the novel, such as setting the story in the present day and incorporating more diversity and inclusion in the cast and characters.



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