Sports and Life | Book Lists
Why do I love sports so much?
Seeking answers in the sports books that I love the most
With all the spare time because of the lockdown, I did some writing. In addition to the other stuff, I wrote about why I love reading and about my favourite football books. Somewhere in the melee of conversations that they induced, this question came up — Why do I love sports so much? Or why do people love sports so much?
FYI, I am a hardcore sports fan. Who watches all kinds of sports, consumes sports books and movies at an enormous rate, remembers arcane stats and facts and researches 30 year old matches.
I had been thinking about it but I didn’t get all the answers.
So I decided to try and answer this question differently.
I picked out some of my favourite sports books and I tried to answer why I loved each book. I hoped that I would have better clarity at the end of this exercise.
This I how I picked them out. I left out football, cricket and basketball books. They are my 3 favourite sports and I needed a separate post for each one of them. I took one favourite book from each of the remaining sports that I follow. And then there were a few which didn’t belong to a sport but belonged to a specific aspect of sport. In the end I had lots of books and a good spread and I hoped that it would bring out all the elements of my sports fandom.
So here goes
Running — Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
I love this unbelievable contest and its contestants — the world’s best professional ultra-athletes against Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, considered the world’s greatest and most natural distance runners. Modern and scientific against ancient and organic on a level playing field. It’s sport at its most unadulterated, pure and joyful best. There are no prizes, no sponsors, hardly any spectators and no live telecast.
Boxing — Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
This is heavyweight boxing at its pinnacle. The world’s most famous boxer(Ali) and his most bitter rival (Frazier).This was the final bloody act of their heroic trilogy of fights. A galdiatorial contest.Two incredible fighters with contrasting strengths, styles and personalities who almost kill each other. It’s totally out of control. This is why people paid to watch boxing.
Hockey — Forgive Me Amma by Sundeep Misra
This is a sad story for all hockey loving Indians. A nation chasing past glory. Looking up to a hero. He keeps fighting all his life. But has nothing to show for all his world-class talent and hard work. Finally, the moment of reckoning arrives. But the end is tragic. A last minute goal by lowly Poland breaks our hearts. Pillay breaks down as he tells his mother that he let the country down.
Horse Racing — Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
This is the ultimate underdog story of a horse who inspired a nation during the Great Depression. He is undersized and written off as a lazy loser. And then Seabiscuit finds his horse whisperer and his mojo. He then goes on a winning run culminating in his greatest triumph — in a two horse race over the great Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. His final burst in the home stretch to come from behind and beat War Admiral is one of the most exhilarating sporting moments.
Formula One — The Death of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams
Senna was a brilliant driver who always pushed his life to the limits of what a human could do. He was the reason I started watching Formula One. Like millions of other fans, I loved his thrilling competitive style. And then he tragically died on the track at Imola. I am a Senna widow who lost interest in the sport after he died. That’s what devotees do.
Boat Racing — Blood Over Water by David and James Livingston
I love boat racing and rowing stories. The sport perfectly embodies the concept of a team — A bunch of humans acting (even breathing) in perfect harmony and unison. The sport is really tough and makes you suffer and yet they soldier on. For honour and glory. The Oxford- Cambridge race is the most famous of them all. This one has a fascinating sub-plot — one brother on each team.
Athletics — The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb
Arguably, the most famous feat in the history of athletics or possibly of all human physical endeavour. This book tells the thrilling story of the pursuit— of three men who passionately chased this milestone and spurred each other on towards the four minute barrier. There are no prizes or even medals for getting there. Just the glory of being the first. Roger Bannister breaks the record and promptly quits the sport to focus on his medical studies. Sadly, other two get forgotten in the annals of time.
Wrestling — Enter The Dangal by Rudraneil Sengupta
I loved this book so much that I wrote to the author. This is a journey through the hinterlands of India where the great tradition of wrestling is alive and thriving. The sport is a major draw and the pehelwans are venerated and celebrated. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd and smell the earthiness of the akhadas as I read the book. This sport is a part of India’s history and social fabric. And now we have a steady stream of quality male and female wrestlers coming though. All of this makes me super happy.
Rugby — Sevens Heaven by Ben Ryan
This is the incredible story of English coach Ben Ryan taking tiny Fiji to the rugby sevens gold in the Rio Olympics. It’s a beautiful and inspiring underdog story. It’s a victory for attacking flair and natural talent over sports science and technology and all the ultra-modern training methods. The richer nations have mercilessly exploited the lack of a professional structure in Fiji rugby and poached their talented players. Finally, the little guy gave it back to them.
American Football — Paper Lion by George Plimpton
George Plimpton was a famous writer and journalist. At 36 years of age, he joined the Detroit Lions (a professional american football team) for their preseason camp and stayed on to play one exhibition game at quarterback. He wanted to show how unlikely it would be for an “average” person to succeed as a professional player. The result is one of the most hilarious and insightful books ever written on the game. It’s a no holds barred view into the inner workings of the game and how the professionals play it. Plimpton lived the dream of every sports fan who would readily give an arm and a leg to spend one day with their sporting heroes.
Baseball or Sports in Cuba- Pitching Around Fidel by SL Price
Cuba is a unique sporting nation. A communist state with poor infrastructure which is constantly hounded by the Americans. Yet it continuously produces the world’s best boxers, baseball players and athletes and has the highest per capita average of world class sportspersons. It’s a small country but its not a sporting underdog. This book gives you a rare and provocative tour of this remarkable sports culture. But there are warning signs as well. Finally, this great sporting machine is crumbling and the athletes are defecting to professional leagues abroad. Sad.
Ice Hockey and the Olympics — The Boys of Winter by Wayne Coffey
This is probably the greatest sporting upset ever. A bunch of American college kids beating the invincible Russians on the biggest stage of them all. No wonder it’s called the Miracle on Ice. I love their coach- the maverick Herb Brooks. He is the ultimate rebel and non-conformist. He knows a traditional approach won’t even bother the Russians. So he comes up with an audacious plan and he wills his team to execute it and beat the mighty Russians. It was an upset but it wasn’t a fluke. I love such coaches.
Life After Sports — The Cost of these Dreams by Wright Thompson
What do great athletes do after they retire ? Live a comfortable life and do some commentary or coaching to keep themselves busy ? Wrong. They are miserable with no way to tame the competitive fire that has raged inside them all their lives. The best piece is on Michael Jordan. He has loads of money and plenty of fame and respect. Yet all he wants is to be able to play competitively. Playing at the highest level must be such an awesome feeling.
Cycling — The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman by Harry Pearson
In Flanders (the Dutch-speaking, northern half of Belgium), cycling is a religion and part of the people’s DNA. Like football in Brazil or running in the rift valley of Kenya. I love these sports mad places with their myths and characters and unique cultures. Harry Pearson is the master of taking you on a journey through these fascinating places. I also love his football book about a journey through England’s football mad North East.
Tennis — A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher
It looks like an odd selection for tennis. But this is sports history at its finest. It’s the deciding fifth match of the 1937 Davis Cup final. Democratic America against Nazi Germany. The world no 1 against no 2. Before Borg Vs McEnroe and Federer Vs Nadal, this dramatic five setter was probably the greatest tennis match ever played. In the backdrop, the world is moving towards World War II. The German Van Cramm is conflicted. A win would make him the hero of Nazi Germany and a loss would be catastrophic. But he actually hates the Nazis and the Gestapo is after him. The writer does a great job telling this remarkable story.
Golf — The Match by Mark Frost
If I ever became super rich, then I would emulate the rich sports fans in this book. They make their sporting fantasies come alive with real players. Millionaire George Lowery bets fellow millionaire George Coleman that his two amateur champions ( Harvey Ward and Ken Venturi) can beat anyone in the world in a best ball match. They end up playing the top two players(Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson) in the world in a thrilling match which goes down to the wire. It’s called the Greatest Private Match ever played.
Sports and Human Ability— Sports Gene by David Epstein
This is a groundbreaking exploration of sporting success in which David Epstein gets to the heart of the great nature Vs nurture debate. With well researched and through arguments, he puts a lot of myths and beliefs to rest. Like the 10,000 hour rule. He shows how certain skills are not innate and why others are actually rooted in genetics. In the end you have a much better understanding and appreciation of how and why elite sportspersons are able to do what they do. It makes you fall in love with sports and sportspersons all over again.
If you are still reading this then I am guessing you genuinely love sports just like I do. Please do tell me about the things you love about sports.
Before I try and summarise, I want to borrow some wisdom from Gary Smith, who’s one of the greatest sports writers ever. You have possibly never heard about him or read his work. He writes the most unique sports stories.
Once he was asked to explain why his stories were so good and unique. He replied
“ ‘Explain yourself. Tell us what you do that makes your stories unique.’ That’s what the editors of this book asked me to do here at the start. I hate explanations, and maybe that’s a clue right there. When the music’s right, no one needs an explanation, and when it’s not, no one wants one.”
After that disclaimer, Smith provided just one paragraph hinting at how and why he does what he does:
“Sport comes to us in boxes, the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game, before it, after it, above it, or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down into those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes, as well.”
I always use this quote to explain my fandom. It’s even on my resume. These are the kind of stories that interest me. And sport offers an endless plethora of such stories.
Not that I don’t enjoy the action inside the box. I love a great contest. I love every underdog fairy-tale. I love the thrilling moments which we end up replaying in our heads forever. I love when a man or woman pushes the limits of human potential. I love the purity of the passion which drives people to chase sporting glory without worrying about rewards. My heart melts when I see a valiant effort end in heartbreak.
The storylines outside the boxes make me think, cry and smile everyday. I love the stories which have historical implications. I love the stories of devoted fans and places like Flanders where sport is a religion and an identity. I love all the what-if alternate history scenarios that we encounter in sports. I love how sports unites the people and how it gives us hope and joy in our otherwise dreary lives. I love a group of people coming together as a team with one heart and soul.
We have all played some sport and most of us have happy childhood memories of playing with joy. Watching sport often transmits us back to those happy days and we relive them through the actions of our sporting heroes.
Beyond this, I can’t think of anything. I don’t know if I managed to find the answer. Possibly, there is no way to explain. You can only feel.
But I am sure of this.
Sports is a happy place for me. And it never stops giving.
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