“He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news”. That line has stayed with me all these years. It is Norman Mailer’s description of George Foreman at the receiving end of a Muhammad Ali punch, from his book The Fight , one of the finest written by someone whose day job is not as a sports-writer.
Sports literature has been enriched by contributions from novelists, philosophers, Nobel Prize winners, palaeontologists, historians, anthropologists, even a Prime Minister or two. Stephen Jay Gould’s Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville has the subtitle: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball. The keyword is “passion”. It is a quality one looks for in all sports-writing, and finds most readily in the essays and books of those obsessed by one sport. Thus, Gould on baseball, our own Ramachandra Guha on cricket, John Updike on golf, Ernest Hemingway on bullfighting, Nick Hornby on soccer.
As a sports-writer, I have a weakness for writing on sports by those who don’t earn their living by doing so. Among my favourite books on sport are On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates, On Bullfighting by A. L. Kennedy and Sea Biscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. All written by women, all by Americans. American writers took sport seriously, not seeing it at the other end of the cultural scale from, say, the opera. Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Don DeLillo set novels in sport. Ring Lardner and Paul Gallico began as sports-writers, as did A. J. Leibling (whose essays on boxing are a tribute literature pays to sport).
Vladimir Nabokov was a chess fanatic, composing complex problems in the game. “Puzzling out chess problems and solutions,” he wrote, “demand from the composer the same virtues that characterise all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity”. The Luzhin Defense was an early novel of his with a chess player as protagonist. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a modern classic.
The sports fans
Other writers who were fans of sport but did not write much about it include the British playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett (who played first-class cricket), the philosopher A. J. Ayer (who wrote football reports for The Observer ).
Books apart, there are wonderful occasional essays too. David Foster Wallace’s tribute (“Roger Federer as a Religious Experience”) and some of his other pieces have been put together in String Theory. Martin Amis has written on tennis, Clive James on Formula One (among other sports), V. S. Naipaul on cricket, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco on soccer. Knowing the Score by David Papineau, a philosopher and sports freak is a collection of essays which brings the philosopher’s eye to bear on sport.
In her book on boxing, Joyce Carol Oates says, “Boxing’s claim is that it is superior to life in that, it is, ideally, superior to all accident. It contains nothing that is not fully willed.” Sport makes philosophers of both those who participate and those who write about it.
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