When it comes to revelling in the glory of sport, sometimes the written word can equal the mastery of those on the field or in the ring. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Five of the best sports books

Muhammad Ali throws a punch at George Foreman.
Muhammad Ali throws a punch at George Foreman during their 1974 title fight in Zaire.
Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

It seems customary to adorn “list” pieces like this with a headline that implies, or even asserts, its definitiveness. “The five greatest sports books of all time”, and so on. I suspect this is done less out of a godlike conviction and more in the belief that it’s usefully provocative – let outraged disagreement drive traffic.

But, dear reader, this pretence of authority discomforts me, and so I can only offer the following as my personal favourites, which have, in their subtle and unsubtle ways, influenced a few of the pieces that have appeared on this page.

Paper Lion by George Plimpton (1966)

In the early ’60s, George Plimpton, inaugural editor of The Paris Review, had a simple and brilliant journalistic idea: “How would the average man off of the street fare in an attempt to compete with the stars of professional sports?”

And so, this charming, tall but straw-thin dandy joins the Detroit Lions in their preseason trials, masquerading as an aspirant for the role of third-string quarterback. The ruse is declared to the coaches but unknown to the players, though they figure something’s up pretty quickly: “He tried to blend in with the rest of the team, but after a while you could just see that George wasn’t much of an athlete,” former Lion Joe Schmidt remembered decades later in a documentary about Plimpton. “You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to figure that one out. You’re in training camp and you’re all pretty good football players, and George comes along, and he’s sort of emaciated looking, you know he’s not too physical of a specimen. And he couldn’t throw the ball more than 15 yards.”

With pencil and notepad shelved in his helmet, Plimpton scrimmages with the big boys, shares their locker rooms, studies the plays – and then writes a very charming book about life inside a professional football team.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall (1970)

Perhaps you know the story. After all, plays, operas and poems have been written about it. There was a documentary in 2006 and, oddly, two separate feature films about the voyage appeared in 2017.

But if you haven’t, I’ll be artfully broad: It’s 1968, and The Sunday Times newspaper has sponsored a solo round-the-world yacht race. An amateur sailor, Donald Crowhurst, whose experience amounts to casual weekend trips up the Devon coast, fanatically commits himself to competing. He indebts himself by commissioning a trimaran boat with a local yard and employs a former tabloid crime writer as his publicist. Public interest in Crowhurst’s voyage was thus built better than his boat, which disastrously fails its trials, but Crowhurst embarks anyway. He has a great taste for glory – and the idea that victory might better promote the navigational device he’s invented. He leaves at home an anxious wife and four young children, who plot his journey with pins on a map.

To circumnavigate the world in a yacht in the ’60s was to do so without GPS or satellite communication – instead, there’s a fickle radio line and a sextant. To this peril was added Crowhurst’s inexperience, impulsiveness and dodgy boat. And yet, despite this – and despite his late entry into the race – it seems that this eccentric hobbyist came close to victory.

Or did he? “I cannot understand why this masterpiece isn’t better regarded,” the British writer Will Self once wrote of the book. Me neither. It is brilliantly written and takes as its principal source the three haunting logbooks of its doomed sailor.

The Fight by Norman Mailer (1975) When considering Norman Mailer’s work, I’m struck, simultaneously, by awe and embarrassment – the gap between his very best and worst is extreme. Given the humidity of Mailer’s ego, and how frequently it fogged his glasses, sometimes this gulf emerges within the same book – or even the same page.

There’s plenty to mock; more to be appalled by. He stabbed his wife. His reverence for Hemingway’s machismo spilt itself into luridly violent parody. There was Mailer’s mad desire to promote a “revolution of consciousness in our time” and the self-consciously baroque prose that was meant to catalyse it. There was the bizarre mysticism, his moody struggle with feminism, his sweaty ambition to wring revelation from anything.

Still, “he had the courage to put his bad character down on paper,” wrote an admiring Andrew O’Hagan, and he took thrilling risks with his own talent. Mailer’s ambition was coupled with an unusual curiosity, and when fixed to subjects large enough to withstand the weird weight of his imagination – like the moon landing, say – he could sing.

In Muhammad Ali, and his 1974 fight against George Foreman in Zaire, Mailer found another subject agreeable to his talents. Which isn’t surprising – has there ever been an athlete so attractive to intellectuals as Ali? Mailer embeds with Ali’s training camp, goes running with the champ, intellectually spars with the fight’s voluble, amoral promoter, Don King.

For all of Mailer’s pyrotechnics and the lofty theories about African spirituality and Zairean culture, what’s remained with me is his poetic reporter’s eye, the exquisitely evocative detail. Of Foreman’s hands, he writes: “He kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case.”

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford (1990)

This book is like a literary Guernica of British hooliganism, written and researched during its splenetic peak. An American expat – Buford was then editor of Granta – the writer befriends thugs, drinks at Nazi discos, squeezes into tight and convulsive terraces. He travels with hooligan “firms”, intuits the weird rhythms of mobs and comes to enjoy the endorphic pleasures of violence. Ultimately, he’s bashed: not by rival goons but by the Turin police, who wield their truncheons righteously against the obnoxious English swarm…

The violence that once attracted Buford’s curiosity, becomes for him progressively boring, nauseating and oppressive. After years of immersion, Buford’s best attempt at an explanation is: “They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much or smoked dope or took hallucinogenic drugs or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically produced drugs.”

The great flaw of the book is Buford’s coyness about his own participation. Its great strength, though, is his descriptive power. About being in the middle of a riot, Buford writes: “Somebody near me said that he was happy. He said that he was very, very happy, that he could not remember ever being so happy, and I looked hard at him, wanting to memorise his face so that I might find him later and ask him what it was that made for this happiness, what it was like. It was a strange thought: here was someone who believed that, at this precise moment, following a street scuffle, he had succeeded in capturing one of life’s most elusive qualities.”

On Warne by Gideon Haigh (2012)

While introducing a posthumous anthology, Greil Marcus once wrote of Lester Bangs that “perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews”. Here, surely, was some stone-faced hyperbole, though I have often lovingly applied a variation to Haigh: that one of Australia’s very best writers writes almost exclusively about cricket.

The profile writer loves those who love their craft, and Shane Warne loved his. It helped that the craft in question – leg-spin bowling – was a rare and beautiful and difficult thing, and that Warne so conspicuously loved his mastery of it as well. While the acquittal of his athletic talent was less explosive, less immediately impressive than that of an elite boxer, say, or footballer, Warne’s joyous self-possession seemed to physically inflate him – he had the powerful aura of a self-pleased child, and he could generate it even when trundling off a few steps.

The great virtue of this book, besides the eloquence of the writing, is that it’s interested in both the man and his craft. Haigh admires the bowling, and can describe the talent precisely, ensuring that the man who possessed it doesn’t drift off into our skies like a cartoonish parade float.

I suspect Haigh would agree with the following, taken from Chad Harbach’s 2011 baseball/campus novel The Art of Fielding. “You loved it,” he writes of the sport, “because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Five of the best".

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