From the dusty Indian cricket fields to the snow covered peaks of Mount Everest, our favourite sports books
Last week we revisited some of our favourite tales inspired by sports. This week, it’s time for some of our favourite books that chronicle the life and times of sports and its legends.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
I am still gonna find out who stole my bike when I was 12 years old in Louisville, and I’m still gonna whup him. That was a gud bike.
Voted by Sports Illustrated as the Sportsman of the Century, Muhammad Ali is arguably the most recognized name from the sporting world, known as much as for his boxing ingenuity as for his personal foibles and convictions. In this authorized biography of the boxing legend who started his life as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., writer Thomas Hauser interviews over 200 people known to Ali – family, friends, coaches and opponents – to unveil all facets of Ali’s life, from his boxing philosophy of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” to his verbal taunting of opponents, his conversion to Islam, his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war despite a three year suspension of his boxing licence, and how he came to be recognized as one of the most recognized champions of African American identity. The prose can be a little dry at times, but that is a small price to pay for a comprehensive exploration of one of the most iconic men on the planet.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
People who don’t climb mountains…tend to assume that the sport is a reckless Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills…. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountains I’d been on. I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.
In March 1996, Outside magazine commissioned Jon Krakauer to write about climbing Mount Everest by participating in a guided ascent of the mountain. Krakauer reached the top of the summit on May 10, but an unexpected storm claimed the lives of four of the five team mates who had scaled the peak with him. When he returned to Base Camp, he learnt about the deaths of five other climbers from other expeditions.
Krakauer completed his brief by submitting a 17,000 word article to Outside, but that wasn’t enough to exorcise the ghosts of the ill fated expedition. Recognizing that the lack of oxygen and extreme shock jumbles up the brain, Krakauer decided to revisit the trip logs and interview the people involved in the expedition. The result is Into Thin Air, which starts as a reconstruction of Krakauer and his team’s journey to the highest peak in the world, but turns into a contemplation by the author on the physical, mental and emotional costs of trekking the slopes of a mountain “littered with corpses”.
Open by Andre Agassi
Please let this be over.
I’m not ready for it to be over.
If there is one theme that is common to autobiographies and biographies of sportsmen, it is their unquestioning love – perhaps worship – for the game. So when one of the most successful tennis players of all time declares that he hates the sport – and has hated it all his life – you’ve got to grab a copy right away. Written with an acerbic wit – a detailed description of getting a painkiller shot for his damaged spine is followed by a joke about naming the puppy he’s promised his kids Cortisone – Agassi lays bare the struggles and loneliness of playing, and living, tennis. Human beings expect their heroes to be perfect in every respect, but in Open, Agassi reminds us that there are two sides to a superhero – one that pushes him to “superhuman” effort and achievement, and the other that is sometimes immoral, frequently calculating and ultimately flawed – just like any other human.
Out of the Blue by Aakash Chopra
When you are Rajasthan, last in the Plate division, never having won the title, never even coming close to a final in over three decades, you don’t play to win the honour, you play to save what you can of yours.
Cricket writing in India is dominated by numerous biographies, and ghost written autobiographies, about the game’s biggest stars. But for a country where cricket cuts across class, caste and color, there is a dearth of quality writing about the also-rans and the rejects – the unheralded players who continue to toil for decades on the domestic circuit, unable to make it to the national team despite an abundance of talent and passion. Former Indian opener Aakash Chopra seeks to fill this gap with Out Of The Blue, which chronicles the extraordinary journey of the Rajasthan cricket team – one that had languished at the bottom of the rankings for decades – as they lifted their first Ranji title in 2010/11 (a feat they repeated in the next season). In profiling each player of the winning team and the matches played by them, Chopra provides a peek into the numerous agonies, and occasional joys, that a vast majority of Indian cricketers endure throughout their careers. If you like nothing better than the triumph of the underdog, this book is for you.
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan
These are the stories of the athletes who worked their whole lives only to see their dreams crushed.
We know that behind the fame and wealth of successful sports-persons lies a life of sacrifice and relentless dedication, but what if it’s worse than that? What we don’t hear enough of is the greed of parents and coaches, of broken bodies and disturbed minds, and sometimes even death. It is this aspect of sports – specifically of competitive gymnastics and figure skating – that Joan Ryan attempts to expose in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Based upon interviews with former professionals as well as sports psychologists, coaches and other training staff, Ryan relentlessly reveals the eating disorders, the physical disabilities, the mental breakdowns and the heart-rending loss of childhood. This is not an easy read, for it is a chronicle of humanity at its most venal and vulnerable. But for throwing light upon the darker side of sport – and for serving as a warning against excessive materialism and ambition – this is an important book.
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