Nicely timed for the Seoul Olympics comes a compassionate fictional portrait of the great New Zealand miler Jack Lovelock--the tragic figure whom Roger Bannister called ""the first modern athlete."" Drawing on the reminiscences of those who knew Lovelock--and on an invaluable if somewhat cryptic personal diary only recently brought to light--New Zealand novelist McNeish convincingly portrays Lovelock as the greatest middle-distance runner of his time--and a man racing only a step ahead of hereditary madness. Born in 1910 in a dismal New Zealand mining town, Lovelock had a father who died young, and a mother who spent most of her life in an asylum. Despite these handicaps, he made it to Oxford, where his career began to blossom with a record 4: 12 mile in 1932. A dismal showing in the Los Angeles Olympics that year slowed hint up only momentarily; this was the ""Golden Age"" of the mile, and the next few years found him racing against all the greats of the period: the American Glenn Cunningham, the Italian Luigi Beccali, the Englishman Sydney Wooderson. But his shining moment came in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In a race he called ""a true artistic creation""--planned meticulously for months--Lovelock broke a world record in the 1500 meters. All of the above are dramatically and realistically described. Less satisfying--more muddled and confusing--is McNeish's attempt to get inside Lovelock's apparent near-madness after Berlin and his mysterious death beneath a New York city subway train--accident? suicide?--in 1949. Still, simply as a portrait of a great athlete and of a period, this is worthwhile reading.