The Front Runner is an emotionally evocative sports drama that manages to elevate its content with a deeply felt romantic through line.

Seemingly ahead of its time, The Front  Runner ends up being perfectly relevant material in today's social climate. The novel provides the opportunity for a movie set in the 70's or a film adaptation that takes place today. 

The book doesn't treat  the characters merely as "gay", it treats them as human, which allows readers of all genders and orientations to engage in and relate to them.

The Front Runner is an underdog sports story, a moving romance, and a socially relevant commentary on love and equality. It's a unique angle on both romance and sports, exploring the masculine  ideal in both realms.

The obstacles that initially keep the two main characters apart - age,  profession, fear of being loved - are universally relatable and build up ample tension between  them. It's a palpable, unforced dynamic that makes the reader desperately want them to get together.

That's only the first  hurdle in their burgeoning relationship. Facing down various stodgy athletic committees who disapprove of their lifestyle, dealing with public scrutiny during their rise to the Olympics, and confronting their own deep seated insecurities and issues make for a very rocky  road ahead. Each little battle works as a satisfying baby step toward their  ultimate dream  of simply competing and being left  alone like everyone else.

With society and nearly every athletic committee working against them,  it is a classic underdog sports story blended with a moving romance in which each of these plots builds to a truly moving and unforgettable climax.


 "The Front Runner" novel takes place in the 1970s, in a time when the U.S. is exploding with change. Ex-Marine Harlan Brown, 39, is a hard-shell conservative and coaches track at a small obscure college. Brown has given up his dream of coaching Olympic athletes and buried himself there because he's gay and in the closet. His fear of exposure is the reason why he had left a more prestigious job at Penn State. Coaching big-time athletes might bring attention to his private life and his secret.

A bombshell is dropped when he has the chance to coach distance runner Billy Sive, 22. Billy is talented, with Olympic potential, but he's destroying himself with incorrect training. He's also gay and his plans to "come out" are unknown to Harlan. Brown reluctantly agrees to coach Sive. But as he argues about the type of training with his protégé, he's horrified to find they are falling in love with each other. As rumors about a relationship between the two men start spreading, the moralistic elements in the sports world make it clear that they'll stop at nothing to keep Sive and his coach from representing America at the Olympic Games.


By Patricia Nell Warren

When people sum up the Front Runner story line, especially when they’re talking about a film adaptation, they want to frame it as the “gay love story of Coach Harlan Brown and his Olympic runner Billy Sive.”  Indeed, when the book was first published in 1974, publisher William Morrow log-lined it in that way.

When I wrote the novel, I didn’t think of it as a “gay love story” or a “gay” anything.   The story came to me as something broader and deeper and more personal – and I think this something is what’s missing as, once again, people talk about the Front Runner movie.

What came to me right in the beginning, in late 1972, as I realized I wanted to write a novel about LGBT people embattled in the sports world, was a story with one central character – one man, a track coach named Harlan Brown.   It had to be his story, told in first person. The phrase that Harlan uses in the book, to describe this arc he lives through, is “the humanization of Coach Brown.”

When I started writing the book, I had been reading some first-person celebrity biographies of the time, at the Reader’s Digest, where I was working as a book editor. I wanted my novel to have that same kind of urgent personal voice, as if a real-life Harlan Brown had finally (some years after the events in the book would have taken place) been persuaded by some publisher offering a lot of money, to write about what really happened, from beginning to end.

So the book’s prose had to be the voice of a conservative ex-Marine veteran who is at war with himself.  He knows he’s gay and attracted to men, but he refuses to let himself feel, to let himself be that person he knows he is, because of his repressive Bible-taught family upbringing and military background. When Harlan’s finds himself falling secretly in love with Billy Sive, the conflict only intensifies and almost drives him mad, until he is finally “human” enough to give in and let himself be in love.

The story does not “end” with what happened to Billy. Harlan’s story in the book continues on after that.  He has spent most of his life wishing he could let himself love someone.  Finally he had the courage to do that and suddenly that love is torn away from him in the most horrendous way – on live TV in front of millions of people. 

Becoming “human” brings Harlan to one more challenge – letting himself feel grief for the first time in his life. So what does Harlan do with his grief?  Does he give up?  Does he regroup, take that hill like the Marine that he still is?  Does he decide to go on having a life?  A life that mysteriously and wonderfully still embraces the memory and spirit of the person he loved?

That decision is the final drama that unfolds in The Front Runner, not Billy’s death on the track in Montreal. “The Front Runner” is actually the story of Harlan’s life – including his own abortive career as a runner, and how, after Billy’s death, he finally has his own victory.

One big reason why I wanted to paint the story so broadly, yet so personally, was that I hoped non-gay people would read the book as well as gay people.  Hopefully the story of Harlan’s inner battle, his defeats and his victories, would spark the sympathies of as many people as possible.   

When the book was written as well as today, stereotypes of gay males as limp-wristed liberals is embedded in people’s minds. Harlan is a crusty gay ex-Marine, a drill-sergeant kind of guy.  I wanted to confront readers with the inner reality of such a man because I know they exist.

Website designed by Greg Zanfardino