Mark Perryman reviews the perfect reading companions to the sporting summer
Summer 2013. The British and Irish Lions win their test series against the Aussies down under. Andy Murray wins Wimbledon. Chris Froome makes it a second Tour de France British Yellow Jersey in a row. Mo Farah does the double in the 5000m and 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships. Sporting Brits are forced for once to come to terms with what it feels like to be winners.
Of course the glorious appeal of sport is its unpredictability. A year ago Man Utd won the League by 11 points with Sir Alex in his retirement pomp. A year later Utd finish in 7th place. The best sportswriting engages with the causes and effects of unpredictability to capture not only the glories of victory but the far more common experience, the miseries of defeat. 2013’s summer of British victories only meant so much because most of us were better accustomed to the experience of British plucky losers. Amongst the finest sportswriters to cover this emotional scope was Frank Keating. The Highlights is a posthumous collection of his superb writing spanning more than fifty years of sport. But sport’s appeal is about more than just emotions. Sport’s potential to mobilise for social change across issues stretching from peace and environmentalism to women’s liberation and anti-racism is expertly chronicled in the collection Sport and Social Movements. It is a potential rarely acknowledged by the Left, in what should be regarded as a classic work on this subject, Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport Editors Ben Carrington and Ian McDonald definitively rebuffed this underestimation. Or by way of practical example., the extraordinary story retold in Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Mao’s China, a long-standing British communist, the Cold War and table-tennis is an unlikely mix yet proves to be a true-life story of how sport can matter enough to change history, sometimes.
Sport is not only socially-constructed but is heavily circumscribed by a binary divide, competition vs recreation. One that is largely meaningless however to the vast majority of us who participate, because for most of our time watching, or doing, we are inevitably on the losing side. The pleasure rather is being there, or doing it. As a doer and a writer Richard Askwith is the supreme champion of the appeal of the most basic sporting activity of all, running , and in his new book Running Free, sub-titled ‘ a runner’s journey back to nature’ he explores with some wonderful writing what running ‘free’ means as opposed to Olympian ambition on the track or big city marathons on the road.
For those still to be convinced of the potential connect between sport and politics James Montague’s When Friday Comes could prove the most enjoyable dose of re-education. A travelogue combining war, revolution and religion with football, all in the Middle East, a quite remarkable read. Or with the summer World Cup fast-approaching try Alan Tomlinson’s handy counter-history of Blatter and company, FIFA : The Men, The Myths and the Money . Written by the pre-eminent expert on what FIFA has done to football , a vital accompaniment to understanding the divorce in Brazil between the tournament and the passion of the people. Cult football in the shape of Danish Dynamite, reveals what that passion can come to represent. in this case Denmark’s thrillingly talented 1986 World Cup Squad. A similar approach, uncovering what teams at particular times represent to those they captivated with their skill and personality is covered by the collection Falling for Football this is fan-oriented writing at its best. Refs of course are one of the main causes of any joylessnes following football. Paul Trevillion and Keith Hackett’s latest volume of their cartoon-strip seriesYou are the Ref enables us all to be the arbiter of the disallowed goal, offside controversy, did he dive or was he tripped? Ideal reading as England go out of the World Cup thanks to a goal that never was. Originally titled Why England Lose authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski came up ahead of World Cup 2010 with an original set of arguments to explain away the nations four decades and more of hurt. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of a young and hugely talented German team helped make the book a well-deserved best-seller. But four years on precious few now expect England to do anything but lose at World Cup 2014 so the book has been revised, updated and given the new title of Soccernomics. A book rich in arguments and statistics, debunking the mythologies of football from penalty shoot outs can’t be trained for to big cities producing the best clubs. More sense than you’ll ever get out of a Match of the Day Sofa.
Elizabeth Wilson is a committed Marxist, a feminist, and a tennis fan…
Review continued at Perryman World of Sport