Sports and books hold a very special place in my little world. Most of my free time (apart from my runs and weekend escapades) I’m either watching a game, or reading a book – which mostly has to do something with sports. So it was inevitable that I found a few particularly interesting than the rest and this write-up is about the five books I found absolutely unmissable for any sports fan.A few disclaimers before I begin. Firstly this is not intended to – and is not – any kind of “five best sports books” or any such other list. I believe no one person is qualified enough to make such a list, and even if he/she does make it, can never appeal to the wide spectrum of audience it faces.Secondly I’ve got books from different sports. No, I did not intend to be diplomatic and try to appease fans of all sports, it just so happened that these five were the best I found, which transcended their particular sport, and were a treat to read in the general sense.
Lastly the order in which I present the books below has nothing to do with their relative merits, it’s just random.
“Its not about the bike” — Lance Armstrong (ISBN – 0425179613)
As far as inspirational reading goes, I doubt if there is any other book in the world (sport or otherwise) that can match this. “Lance Armstrong’s story is the stuff of legends” it says on the back cover and the epithet pretty much encapsulates the spirit of the book. A mediocre international athlete, who changed to pro cycling from triathlon was diagnosed with testicular cancer, relatively early into his career. What followed was the epitome of human spirit, determination and sheer courage.
The book initially dabbles a bit into the author’s childhood and rise to international sports but soon reaches the tragic juncture of him being diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong, not with much hope of survival, went through a painful and seemingly career ending treatment. He made out of it, broken in body, but not spirit. Armstrong’s description of the vagaries of recovery and the mental battles fought during are enough to shake the stoicest of people.
Thereafter the book traces his first Tour de France victory. Being the maiden triumph, the description has a bit of innocence to it, as well as a romantic thrill. Lance steers the reader through his tumultuous and unbelievable journey, while also introducing us to the enchanting world of international cycling. Words such as “peloton” and “maillot jaune” take familiar overtones and by the time you’re finished with the book, it is impossible not to google more about Le Tour and Armstrong.
A very powerful book then, not just with the element of sports, but the potential to bring about a change in the approach towards life. I believe this book should be made a compulsory read in today’s scenario where suicides are committed for trivial reasons. If there is one message out of the book, it is that life is a gift, no matter how bad the wrapper is, the article inside is too valuable not to be fought for, till the last breath.
“How football explains the world” — Franklin Foer (ISBN – 0099492261)
Football is a game played by more nations on this planet, than probably many other games put together. That FIFA has more affiliated members than the United Nations is proof enough of the global reach and impact of the beautiful game. While these figures almost feel clichéd, Franklin Foer goes on to analyse how is it that a sport passionately followed by billions goes on to change the thread of life on earth. Because something so widely accepted cannot just be a mere footnote in the larger scheme of things.
The book takes us on a whirlwind ride from the dusty pitches of South America, teeming with rich talent, to the highly advanced and mega corps of Europe afflicted with unforgiving rivalry. In the process the book revolves around many significant issues such as antisemitism, globalisation, pseudo nationalism and their effects on football and vice-versa.
The author admits that the purpose of the book is to explore the nature of the game in cultural terms more than its economic impact. So while he does wonder at the failure of global giants such as Manchester United and Real Madrid’s failure to wipe out local allegiances, he also studies the role played by many clubs across the world as an expression of local identities.
For a football fan, the reading varies from euphoria to surprise, bringing him/her closer to the game than just the big name worshipping. But the real impact of Foer is felt on a newcomer to the world of football. His lucidity of expression (possibly coming from being a political journo in Washington) and immense research helps put across the emotional connect of the game and its oxymoronic power to liberate cultural boundaries, at the same time creating venomous divides. Overall Foer succeeds in explaining the connect of the game at a much higher level than sport.
“True Colours: My Life” — Adam Gilchrist (ISBN – 1405038969)
I’m not a big fan of cricket. Great game that it may be, I find it a bit too slow for my taste (and 20-20 is more entertainment than sport). But if there is one name that comes to my mind when reminded of cricket, its Adam Gilchrist (ok all Sachin fans don’t kill me, let me live with my weird choice). One of the last standing gentleman of the so-called gentleman’s game has been equally candid in the narration of his life’s story. The book is an emotional roller coaster which could move even the toughest of hearts and look towards the psychological demands of modern sports.
Gilly starts on a solemn note bringing out his predicament of deep sorrow after playing a memorable innings. But it’s just a prologue as afterwards he guides us through his childhood, his days as a young boy in a family obsessed with sports. While being surrounded by above average athletes did have its advantages, but it certainly had its pressures too. However one thing that emerges about the initial days in the legend’s life is that he was equally humble and maybe a bit introvert even at this young age.
Moving on to his adolescent years and the initial successes, he details the dilemma faced by a young teenager spending years away from family and friends ,focussing most of his waking hours in the single-minded pursuit of cricket. Gilly’s also quite candid about how tense he was when being compared with the legendary Ian Healy and the doubts in his mind if he could ever replace the revered gloveman (in the team and public imagination). But his admiration was not limited to the greats, he also indicates his fascination watching sublime talents like the precocious Ponting and McGrath, many of whom were younger than him.
But he did get his break and the next part of the book is certainly more interesting. It details his triumphs and travails in international cricket, right from the highs of consecutive world cup victories, to the lows of being part of the first Australian team in ages to lose the Ashes. Gilchrist has devoted much print space to the debacle of 2005 which was the most testing time for him professionally and personally, and one cannot be anything but moved on reading of such unreasonable pressures being put on an already demoralised person.
The last part has a bit about his last world cup and the man of the match performance in the final. He also has tried to bring out his view in the monkeygate scandal (though how much that would appeal to Indian readers, I’m not sure) and the ever controversial issue of “walking”. Overall Gilly’s provided a peek into an international sportsman’s life while staying clear from commenting on other players and causing controversy. A very good read then, which may not appeal to the tabloid in you, but certainly to the true fan who cherishes pure sportsmanship and sheer joy of participation more than anything else.
“Who do you think you are, Michael Schumacher” — Ian Stafford (ISBN – 009190885X)
Ian Stafford is the author of famous titles like “Playground of the gods” and “In search of Tiger”, but in this particular book, he seeks to find what is it that separates him and a top motor-sport star. His various discoveries enroute take the reader through a whirlwind trip from the tracks of England to a ranch in Australia and in the skies with a former world champion. Stafford’s narration is meant to tickle the funny bone while answering the demands placed on a top-level athlete in motor-sports.
The wild goose chase started (as it often does) with a remark from the author’s better half. Tired of the relentless boasting of his own driving abilities, she utters the dreaded words “Who do you think you are, Michael bloody Schumacher.” Now for any self-respecting male such a comparison is bound to ruffle feathers and start a complex process aimed to prove that the person in question is defiantly at par (if not better) than the German ace. Stafford being the sports journo he is, definitely believed (more than a normal male) in his driving capabilities.
What follows is a meeting with several world champions, and many (then) present day drivers. One of the best is his interaction with David Coulthard in Monaco and the subsequent bicycle ride both take to a nearby hill. That probably was the first glimpse for the challenger as to his slightly precarious physical condition when compared to a top F1 driver. But not one to be dissuaded, Ian continued in his pursuit and finally managed to get a one to one with Schumacher. That he managed to defeat him in a go-kart race was (and probably will be) the high point in the journos life.
But hey, it was not as simple as that. There is a bizarre twist in his victory over Michael, and for that one really needs to pick up this book and find for oneself. Rest assured it’ll be a hilarious ride in company of some of the most famous men to grace this sport and probably would help the reader in answering such a question in the future (someday you just might have to you know) in a slightly more pragmatic fashion.
“Playing the Enemy” — John Carlin (ISBN – 0143115723)
This book is probably the starkest example of the power of sports and the place it holds in the subconscious of humans across the globe. All movie buffs would know the story by the name of Invictus (which is also the name of the latest edition of the book) and it is the true story of the Springboks’ world cup victory at home against all odds – sporting and political. It also is a masterpiece in mass seduction and understanding of human psychology by a great man, kind of whom we so badly lack in our country.
First half of the book is pretty much about the political atmosphere of an apartheid infested South Africa fighting for independence in a post colonial era. The author very briefly guides us through the initial opposition movements, formation of the ANC, the rise of Mandela and has very successfully painted a rough political and demographic map of erstwhile South Africa. The book brings out some watershed events in the country’s past, which hastened the process of independence and maybe this accelerated pace left the country’s new administrators with a humongous amount of patching up effort to do.
Carlin then moves on to give a glimpse of the understanding of Nelson Mandela’s thought process. How in a country at the brink of civil war, Mandela had the courage to focus on something (which most people considered) as trivial as a sport. And that too a sport hated by majority of the population and supposedly an icon of the apartheid past. One of the most succinct explanations in the book is of the significance the name and symbol of Springboks held for the Afrikaner, and Mandela’s early foresight of using it as a tool for winning their trust and ensure a peaceful settlement.
The book steers us through this precarious diplomatic battle being fought by Mandela, while on the other hand his equivalent of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar was trying to unite his own team, and most of all make them believe in themselves. The world cup per-se does not have many pages devoted to it, but then the victory itself was a small (yet significant) link in the massive chain unifying a divided nation.
It may not be to the liking of a purist sports fan, but as far as bringing out the unquantifiable appeal of any sport, this book is worth its weight in gold. It is definitely a must read for all those non believers who still term most sports (and especially rugby) as a barbaric display of two basic human flaws – hunger for victory and display of power. Modern sport may also be that, but as the book shows, in the hands of a great few it transcends the most noble of causes and moves people to achieve the impossible.
So that was my (slightly longish) view of probably the most inspiring and unforgettable sports books that I’ve read – repeat – I’ve read. Am sure I’ve missed out many gems and my apologies if there is a glaring miss, but I would be grateful if any of you has a strong recommendation to make. Once again this is not an exhaustive or a “best” list, it’s just five books that I feel are a must read among many others. So please take out some time and immerse yourself in this beautiful endeavour called sport, narrated by some of the most famous men to have been associated with it, and rest assured it’ll give you a whole new perspective, not just about sports, but about life as a whole.