Mark Perryman offers an exhaustive reading selection for a sizzling summer of sport.
Exhaustive? Exhausting more like! The never-ending summer of sport from Euro 2016, the British Grand Prix, English rugby down under, Test Match cricket, Le Tour, Wimbledon fortnight , Rio 2016 and then before you know it the football season has started. It was ever thus, the sport has just got bigger that’s all, if not always better.
To help navigate our way through the cause and effect of the highs and the lows, there’s no better place to start than John Leonard’s Fair Game, an easy-to-read history of the clash between politics and sport. To take a more philosophical approach means engaging with competition vs participation, another one of those big match this versus that binary opposition which serve more to obscure than inform.
Losing It by the superlative Simon Barnes teaches us more than we will ever need to know about the joys of not being on the winning side. But the sharpest divide in sporting culture has nothing to do with winners and losers but gender. Can you name a single sporting culture which isn’t fundamentally shaped by gender relations? Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play is a popular read on this complex but essential subject, an absolute must-read for the future of sport, any sport.
Once every four years the Summer Olympics are so huge that for two or three weeks they both block out almost all other sport - and plenty more besides - while providing a platform for sports that otherwise hardly ever get a look in. The latter is arguably one of the few remaining redeeming features of the Olympic ideal, well covered by Dave Zirin’s fully updated Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. It deals with both the Olympics and football’s World Cup, and their impact on Brazil in 2014 and 2016.
Of course most of these failings are not new. Jules Boykoff's Power Games is a political history of the Games which explains the scale of the failure both historically and theoretically via the highly original concept of ‘celebration capitalism’. During Rio this will be our favourite read between the breathlessly exciting sporting action on the TV.
Ordinarily the combination of a European Championships and the fiftieth anniversary of ’66 would have turned 2016 into a footballing summer. But for the English, after Iceland 2 Poundland 1, no chance of that! Peter Chapman’s exercise in nostalgia Out Of Time reminds us of a year when for England, almost anything seemed possible, on and off the pitch, 1966.
A perhaps less obvious year to choose to revisit with such English optimistic intent is 1996. But this was the year of England’s Euro 96, Britpop (actually English pop) and new Labour on the eve of a General Election landslide, including a majority of English seats. When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons and When We Were Lions from Paul Rees both cover this epic tournament with one eye on the politics and culture of the time too. For thirtysomethings and older, a really great read about something England have failed to do this century - make it to a tournament semi-final!
Taking a longer historical view is Colin Shindler’s Four Lions which imaginatively chronicles English footballing history via the life, career and times of four England captains: Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Gary Lineker and David Beckham.
Taking a more conventional approach to all things post ’66, Henry Winter in Fifty Years of Hurt records with the finest of insights all that has gone wrong, and the reasons why, since that singular golden moment five decades ago. The paperback edition will make even more painful reading mind no doubt, with the defeat to Iceland tacked on and the dawning of the age of Big Sam as England supremo.
For a variety of studies of the modern game, the edited collection by Ellis Cashmore and Kevin Dixon Studying Football provides some academic explanations which are both rich in detail and deep in understanding. But my top choice to pack for the new season’s away trip reading has to be And The Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany.
I first read this superb book as a review copy a year ago, but then it was promptly withdrawn because of the Hillsborough Inquest. This is a book that begins and ends with Hillsborough, and in between deals with the mess modern English football has become. Delayed because of the Inquest and the legal restrictions of the legal proceedings on such a book, twelve months later it is if anything an even more powerful and compelling read.
Without the Ashes cricket struggles to get much of a look-in even during the summer months, selling off the live TV coverage to Sky has reduced wider public interest still further. Emma John’s Following On is therefore a timely reminder of cricket’s appeal, even when it’s not actually very well played.
Football of course has been dominant for so long now in English sporting culture it is hard to imagine other models for how to consume sport, and a five-day Test Match is perhaps the most incongruous alternative imaginable.
My favourite other way to consume sport is cycling. Decentralised, free to watch, pan-European, and on terrestrial TV, thousands ride the course to reach their best roadside vantage point, and the Brits always win - well almost always.
I’m talking of course about Le Tour. The classic account of this most famous of cycling contests, Geoffrey Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race, has recently been republished, a superb mix of cultural history and sporting commentary.
And a novel to expand our understanding of what it takes to ride this greatest of all races? From Dutch author Bert Wagendorp comes Ventoux, the story of a group of friends who decide to ride to the summit of this most iconic of climbs and the effect the effort has on all of their lives.
The Science of the Tour de France by James Witts takes a more practical approach. In spellbindng detail along with magnificent photography and graphics the author carefully explains what it takes to ride this most punishing of races spread over almost an entire month of varied and arduous competition. And there is probably no rider better equipped to put that experience into words than David Millar, and he does precisely that in his very fine new book The Racer.
What is special about cycling is the connection between competition and participation, what other sport can you use as a means to get to work, do the shopping, a family day out? Team Sky rider and Team GB Olympian sketches out precisely those connections in his amusing yet informative book The World of Cycling According to G.
The most basic sporting test however of human endurance remains running. Arguably the one truly universal global sport, requiring no equipment, no facilities, any body shape, and for the lucky few a route out of poverty too.
Richard Askwith has established himself as one of the best writers on the sport, Today We Die A Little is Richard’s biography of one of the greatest long-distance runners of all time, Emil Zatopek, which reveals both what it takes physically to take one’s body beyond the limits of human endurance, but also the political context of 1950s Eastern Europe which drove Zátopek to run.
But there’s one feat Zátopek failed to achieve, nor any runner before or after him either - breaking two hours for the marathon. Ed Casear’s Two Hours combines investigative journalism, sports science and athletic travelogue to find out whether this near-mythical barrier might ever be broken.
And my sports book of the quarter? There is only really one choice. Not content with writing a peerless global history of football in The Ball is Round, and a riveting account of all that is wrong with English football in The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt has now written the definitive and best history of the Olympics, The Games.
What David does so effortlessly well as a sportswriter is combine hard won facts and tales with original opinion and ideas, to construct both a story and an alternative. This is the must-have book, to go with those late nights and early mornings watching the Rio Olympics - and long after too.
Note: No links in this review to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from tax dodgers please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.