Sports books – what are we paying for?

Having recently reviewed the autobiography of three-time Olympic slalom champion Tony Estanguet, I spent a few days trawling the sports biography section of my local book shop. I was struck by the number of books by people whose literary skills I have good reason to question. So what do we think we’re getting when we buy a sportsperson’s autobiography?

I’ve seen the speculation that people who bought Lance Armstrong’s books may try to sue him on the basis that they were mostly a pack of lies. The BBC is reporting that some US readers are trying to launch a class action lawsuit against the disgraced cyclist.

But what do we expect from such books?

Do we really expect them (a) to be gospel truth; (b) a good read; and (c) actually written by the person concerned?

For those of us familiar with the post-match or post-race interview, the sportsperson’s responses and reactions are little short of monotonous, repetive and uninsightful. No wonder really, they’re so wrapped up in the moment that it often takes a professional – journalist, commentator, author, editor – to take what they’ve seen, analyse it and commit it to paper in some decent prose.

How many times have we heard a football manager tell us the team ‘was robbed’ and that he (because it’s always ‘he’)  personally is ‘gutted, absolutely gutted’? Too many. For every eloquent sportsman like Roger Federer there are dozens, nay scores, of tongue-tied even tongue-twisted managers, coaches and players who just can’t seem to string a sentence together without sounding like a village idiot. And  most of them, it seems, have books out.

So, what to make of sports autobiographies? This Christmas past saw a veritable flurry of post-Olympic titles – all cashing in on the London 2012 fervour (and, why not, as my favourite film reviewer and writer Barry Norman used to say).

For the most part these books are not written by the sportsperson concerned. There were, of course, exceptions – Tony Estanguet spent two solid months writing his tome before handing it over to the editors. But most sportspeople are not writers, they’re athletes. If you’re lucky, the sportsman will, at best, have approved the manuscript.

Few sportspeople like writing and, in the case of footballers, most can’t, having left school just as soon as they could. It’s sometimes, cruelly, said that the only time Wayne Rooney holds a pen is when he’s signing Colleen’s credit card receipts – and the introduction of Chip and PIN means he probably doesn’t even do that so often these days. It still hasn’t stopped the Manchester United striker pushing out a couple of books.

If Lance Armstrong’s books had been displayed in the fiction shelves of bookshops rather than the sports biographies section, would it have made any difference? Probably not…millions of people around the world drew (at least temporary) inspiration from Armstrong’s tale of how he fought back from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France. Alright, so it was drug-assisted. But he at least got back in the saddle and that lesson of not accepting defeat was still, to some extent, a worthwhile read.

I read the last opus by glamour model Jordan and was similarly inspired* by her tale of how someone with no education and no real talent can still ‘make it’. I know, of course, she didn’t write a word of it and so too do all her other readers. But are they suing?

If you do want a great sports book, by the way, can I recommend Lonely at the Top, by Philippe Auclair. It’s Thierry Henry’s biography and an enjoyable read.

Another good book to while away a plane journey is On Warne by Gideon Haigh. Perhaps because of the nature of Warne’s outgoing nature and larger-than-life personality, it’s an entertaining book.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find a reference to one of my favourite sledging incidents, relating to the days when Warne was a good deal porkier than he is now in his role as Liz Hurley’s squeeze. South African cricketer Daryll Cullinan,  on his way to the wicket, was told by Warne he’d been waiting two years for another chance to humiliate him – “Looks like you spent it eating,” Cullinan retorted.

Haigh does, however, come up with some great descriptive lines, including this one, describing Warne as he was about to bowl: ” “There stood Warne at the end of his mark, curling the ball from hand to hand, an action both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat.”

No article about sports books should overlook arguably the best sports writer of his generation – Simon Barnes. His most recent title wasn’t actually a sportsbook, but was worth a look just the same: Birdwatching With your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong. Only someone of Barnes ability could make a birdwatching title readable.

* I know, ‘inspired’ is a little strong but, hey, that’s literary licence for you. 

This article was first published on the Royal Canoe Club website on 4 February 2013 and reproduced widely elsewhere, including by Sportscene.tv.

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