Sport is seldom about sport alone. You only have to remember that El Salvador and Honduras went to war over the result of a football match to grasp this. The long-form essay is the great sports writer’s natural habitat, giving him the space and allowing him the pace to explore his subject.
Sadly, the long-form sports essay is virtually absent in India. The Cricket Monthly , the online mate of ESPNCricinfo is, as far as I know, the only platform. And that is for one sport. Caravan magazine has had an occasional essay, but again, these are biased towards cricket.
Some of the best-remembered pieces on sport have been The Silent Season of a Her , Gay Talese’s profile of the baseball legend Joe di Maggio, Roger Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster Wallace, the essays on participatory journalism by writers such as Paul Gallico and more vigorously, George Plimpton. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Art of Failure is in the tradition of The New Yorker essay. Keeping him company in the pages of that magazine over the years are the likes of John Updike (golf), A. J. Leibling (boxing), Haruki Murakami (running), Ring Lardner (baseball), Martin Amis (tennis) and Don Delillo.
Last year, Wright Thompson, the ESPN writer and a legend in his own right published The Cost of These Dreams , a collection of essays on sports. It is, wrote John Grisham, better known in another genre, “Full of rich characters, suffering, courage, conflict and vivid detail.” In one sentence he thus brings together the essence of the long-form essay: deep research, sensitivity, compassion, and a gift for approaching the subject from an unusual angle.
Failures are often more interesting than successes in sport; it is Don Bradman’s final innings zero that grabs the imagination in the context of his incredible successes overall. There is something to be said about capturing sporting greats in their late years. Thompson’s essay on Michael Jordan is a good example. The legend, now weighing 246 pounds fantasises about the time when he was younger and weighed 218. There are too vignettes of Jordan’s analysis while watching television and getting his comment in just ahead of, more precisely and more accurately than the commentators.
Muhammad Ali — inevitably — figures too. But at an angle. Ali fought 50 men. Only one disappeared, says Thompson and sets about trying to find him. “Sweet Jimmy (Ali’s opponent) is gone,” writes Thompson, “He didn’t leave a record, he doesn’t exist on paper, just in the minds of those left in Overtown. He won’t even exist there much longer.”
Many of Ali’s opponents slid away from life and memory. The first, Tunney Hunsaker spent days in coma; the last, Trevor Berbick was beaten to death with a steel pipe. Many went to prison. Many lost their minds — Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis — to dementia pugilistica.
Ali himself did not escape the ravages of his sport. There are few winners in boxing. Not surprising then that some of the best sports writing concerns boxing.
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