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Sports books fill the bestseller lists every Christmas. Anne Coddington and Mark Perryman examine the rise and rise of the new sports writing

December 14, 2007
7 min read

In the 1980s a new sports writing emerged that took sport’s social, cultural and political impact seriously. This was in the aftermath of 1970s’ anti-apartheid campaigns to boycott South African sport. Then, in 1980, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan campaigned for a boycott of that year’s Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The response of the sporting establishment to both left and right was to ‘keep politics out of sport’.

This is a nonsense, of course: sport is political. But the trouble was that these campaigns often appeared hardly to bother with understanding the dynamics of sporting culture. Academic Gary Whannel was one of the first to raise this within the left when he wrote Blowing the Whistle in 1983: ‘Socialist writing on sport has consistently sought to assert that you cannot keep politics out of sport. It has been less successful in exploring the complex and contradictory nature of the politics of sport.’

Over the following three decades a sports writing has developed that is committed to precisely this kind of exploration. Surveying this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlist, David Luxton, the literary agent for Simon Wilde, one of the shortlisted authors, is encouraged by the type of titles selected: ‘The ambition must be that a well-written sports book, a story well-told, will still receive the recognition it deserves.’

However, while the award certainly identifies good writing, the titles selected are ‘very mainstream’ says Charles Frewin, director of the online bookshop, Sports Books Direct. ‘One small publisher may get on the longlist but by the time you get to the shortlist it’s just the big publishers, so you lose the more unusual or eclectic titles.’

Belinda Wheaton, editor of Understanding Lifestyle Sport, attributes the enduring very male appeal of much of sports writing to the way it treats its subject. ‘Where’s the emotion, what you might call the spirituality of sport? Women aren’t as motivated to read the scoreline, who won what. That means we’re being left out.’

This exclusion is not just confined to gender. Rodney Hinds, sports editor of The Voice, is surprised at the lack of black sports writers. ‘We love our sport, we are well represented on the playing fields, but writing about sport has not been an obvious avenue. Perhaps it’s because we want to play, to be the next Rio Ferdinand or Lewis Hamilton.’

Sport has become an increasingly important part of our lives: sport as fashion, showbiz, brand-builder for multinational companies and so on. While recognising that sport can foster exclusions, around race and gender in particular, it has an almost unrivalled capacity to include too. It is the supreme example of a popular globalisation.

The approach of Pete May, author of a fan’s diary about following West Ham, Hammers in the Heart, is typical of the new style of writing on football. This emerged with the phenomenal success of the 1992 award winner, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Today almost every club boasts a fan’s diary of what it’s like following their team up and down England’s motorways and divisions.

But hasn’t this type of writing run its course? Pete May tends to think so. ‘It’s certainly more difficult to find a new angle,’ he says. ‘This Christmas there will be at least six new books about West Ham, including the inevitable “Miscellany”, which every big club now seems to have.’

May believes a new trend in football writing is emerging that goes beyond the fixation with one particular club. ‘Jim White’s book on managing his son’s kids team, You’ll Win Nothing With Kids, is trying to do something different. And a few years ago Manslaughter United about prison football was really good too. So there are definitely still stories to be unearthed.’

Rob Steen teaches sports journalism at the University of Brighton. He is not surprised that books on boxing figure so prominently in the list of the award’s previous winners. This includes last year’s winner, a biography of Jack Johnson the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.

‘Boxing is so visual,’ says Steen, and touches on so many themes. ‘It’s about human nature and the dignity of sport. The stories are so rich, corruption so rife. Johnson’s story is about racism in the early 20th century, black versus white. A sport of extremes, the body stripped almost naked.’

He reels off some of the great writers who have written on sport: ‘Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway on boxing, CLR James on cricket, of course.’ But he remains anxious that in today’s market-driven climate publishers are missing out on the themes framing our consumption of sport. ‘Corruption, drugs, foul play – these aren’t the subjects likely to drive sales.’

Sport is no longer seen by most observers as socially peripheral but as part of the mainstream of society. The winner of the 2007 William Hill award will never attract the same cultural plaudits as Anne Enright, this year’s Man Booker prize winner. But there should perhaps be a recognition that Nick Hornby and his many imitators have done more to introduce books to non-traditional readers, and writers too, than most Booker Prize winners. And while black authors are appallingly under-represented among those short-listed every year, books such as Donald McRae’s 2002 winner In Black and White and Peter Oborne’s 2004 winner, Basil D’Oliveira, were both magnificent accounts of the core relationship with race that is a central narrative across so many sports.

Sports writing at its best can inspire the creation of both a more reflexive relation to our obsessions and a greater sensitivity to the exclusions, as well as the inclusions, of sport. Sport can be a better tool than most to help us understand society; it is a symbol of both individualism and the collective. Never a score draw between the two, the best of the new sports writing helps us understand the cultural consequences of who wins and who loses.

Interested in this subject? Try Key Concepts in Sports Studies, Fever Pitch, You\’ll Win Nothing With Kids, Manslaughter United, Unforgivable Blackness, The Fight, A Movable Feast, Beyond a Boundary, or Basil D\’Oliveira.

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