20130103

The best sports books of 2012 -- a Sports Bookshelf selection

As we welcome 2013 and a whole new raft of sports literature, time to reflect on the best of 2012, or at least those that appealed most to The Sports Bookshelf.

Not surprisingly, the short and longlists from the William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards are well represented, most prominently by the winner of that prize, the extraordinary exposé of chemical cheating that helped bring down one of sport's biggest names in the cyclist Lance Armstrong.

In the words of the judges, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France won the William Hill prize for self-confessed doper Tyler Hamilton because it 'fundamentally changed the sport it described' but it stands as a great read, too, irrespective of the impact of its content.

Skilfully crafted by the journalist Daniel Coyle, Hamilton's account of his time alongside Armstrong in the US Postal Team has the style and suspense of an espionage novel as Hamilton, who was right at the heart of the most sophisticated and long-running programme of organised dishonesty in the history of all sports, describes the extraordinary life of subterfuge that Armstrong and his cohort pursued to put themselves on top of their sport and protect the secrets of how they did it.

Drugs in cycling is not a new theme but no book before The Secret Race explored it in such detail or with such devastating consequences.

Richard Moore has written a number of fine books on cycling but The Dirtiest Race in History is not one of them.  The focus of his investigative spotlight instead is the other arena damaged by the curse of drugs, that of athletics.

The race in question is the 1988 Olympic 100 metres final, won by the subsequently disqualified Ben Johnson.  Until Armstrong's catalogue of misdeeds was exposed, Johnson was the highest profile cheat in the history of competition and Moore, reasonably enough, chose an Olympic year to dig deeper into the scandal than any previous research had gone, drawing upon countless interviews and a meticulous exploration of the story and its background.

He could never hope to match Hamilton's impact. Moreover, in a year determined to celebrate all that is good about the Olympics, he was seeking to appeal to a potential audience perhaps less interested in the dark side of the Games than he might have anticipated.  Yet there is much to commend it, not least in the questions raised over the legitimacy of the test that brought about Johnson's downfall.

The Dirtiest Race in History is from the Wisden Sports Writing series also responsible for We'll Get 'Em in Sequins, Max Davidson's clever and amusing dissertation on manliness, viewed through the lives of iconic Yorkshire cricketers, and for Martin Kelner's lovely romp through the history of sport on television, Sit Down and Cheer.

Kelner -- whose Screen Break column for The Guardian has sadly fallen foul of the paper's latest round of cost cutting -- is a naturally witty writer who often needs to resort to little more than his sense of humour to engage the reader.  Sit Down and Cheer has more to it than that, with input from many of those involved in bringing sport to our screens as it charts the evolution of sport on television, which is, after all, how the majority of fans get their fix.  Yet it is no less funny and entertaining for that.

Humour of a different kind is central to Clare Balding's memoir of childhood, My Animals and Other Family.  The radio and television presenter's early life was dominated by various pets - largely dogs - and the horses her father trained at the racing stables that doubled as the family home, visited from time to time by The Queen among other patrons.  Strictly speaking it isn't a sports book -- Balding's career behind a microphone will doubtless provide a sequel -- but the fact that the equine characters include Mill Reef and other stars of the track gives it authenticity of a kind.

When Simon Jordan, the former mobile phone entrepreneur and chairman of Crystal Palace, published the story of his 10 disastrous years at Selhurst Park, it was difficult to imagine it could possibly have a claim to be the football book of the year.  Jordan, famous for his unnaturally tanned skin and unfeasibly blond hair, at one time seemed to represent much of what there was to dislike about football but his story, Be Careful What You Wish For, deserved its place on the William Hill shortlist.

Jordan employs a ready fund of clichés and at times you may find yourself cringing at his behaviour but there are some jaw-dropping tales of what serves as acceptable business practice in a football world populated by sharp agents and officials of questionable competence.

Yet, for all the praise bestowed on Be Careful What You Wish For by the bookie prize panel, the Sports Bookshelf would place it no higher than third among the best football books of 2012.

Of greater literary merit, certainly, are Anthony Clavane's Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here and Duncan Hamilton's The Footballer Who Could Fly.

Clavane, whose brilliant Promised Land was Best Football Book at the 2011 British Sports Book Awards, developed the theme of Jews in football that was central to Promised Land by embarking on a history of Jewish involvement in English football from east London parks in the late 19th century to the boardrooms of the present day, each of the 11 chapters focusing on a key individual.  Clavane tells some fascinating stories and reveals himself again to be a fine writer.

The same can be said of Duncan Hamilton, already an award-winner several times over, who intertwines the development of football in his lifetime with poignant memories of his struggle to forge a close bond with his father when all they had in common was a love of the game.

Although he has been accused at times of being a little too much the misty-eyed nostalgic, Hamilton is capable of delivering a wonderful turn of phrase and The Footballer Who Could Fly recreates the age of Jackie Milburn as vividly as the modern world of Lionel Messi.

Also recommended is Life's a Pitch, an engaging collection of essays by assembled by Michael Calvin, who asked 18 football writers to reveal the secret which professionalism demands they keep to themselves while going about their daily business, namely the club with which their personal allegiance lies.

Rory Smith, John Cross, Martin Lipton, Ian Ridley, Janine Self and Jonathan Wilson are among those who consented to shed the cloak of impartiality.  Their confessions have provided many an entertaining hour.

Greatly enjoyable, too, was El Clasico, a detailed study of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona in which Barcelona-based journalist Richard Fitzpatrick delves deep into the history and background to arguably the world's most intense, most keenly felt football enmity, explaining all its social and political dimensions.

Cricket rarely fails to serve up a gem or two.  David Warner's The Sweetest Rose is among them, written to mark the 150th anniversary of the formation of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, on January 8, 1863.

Warner is the doyen of the Yorkshire press box, who has been recording the fortunes of the county of the white rose on a daily basis -- at least in the summer months -- since he became cricket correspondent of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 1975.

No one is thus more qualified to chart the colourful and often stormy history of the world's most famous cricket club than Warner and he does so diligently, faithfully and even-handedly, recording the great matches, the great deeds and the great characters, from Lord Hawke to Michael Vaughan and all those in between -- Wilfred Rhodes, Len Hutton, Fred Trueman and, of course, Geoffrey Boycott, to name but four. It is a fine record that will endure among the definitive works on Yorkshire cricket.

The Sports Bookshelf was also taken with Gentlemen and Players, in which Charles Williams, also known as Lord Williams of Elvel and, on cricket scorecards in the 1950s, CCP Williams, recalls the decline and eventual death of amateurism in cricket.

Williams, educated at Westminster School and Oxford University, had a successful career in business and later became an eminent biographer of 20th century political leaders and cricketers.  Before that, he represented Oxford University and Essex at cricket as an amateur and appeared in one of the last Gentlemen versus Players matches.

Far from penning a lament for some lost golden age, Williams has produced a notable social history in which he points up the hypocrisy of the amateur era and hails the advance of professionalism as essentially good for the game.

Somewhat unheralded when it appeared on the shelves in October, the biography of the year is undoubtedly Gideon Haigh's On Warne, which is the wonderful Australian cricket writer's view on the life and times and complexities of Shane Warne, the brilliant spin bowler and at his peak one of the best known sportsmen on the planet.  Anything written by Haigh is a pleasure to read; this combines elegance with considerable wisdom and insight.
In the days mourning his woefully premature passing, it is of some small consolation to recall that the writer and broadcaster Christopher Martin-Jenkins managed to add a personal memoir to the vast number of words he wrote about cricket to a life cut tragically short by cancer on New Year's Day.

CMJ -- A Cricketing Life, which was published in April, revealed much more of himself than might have been expected of a man with a natural reserve.  There is plenty about cricket and many strong but well thought-out opinions, the expression of which was fundamental to his devotion to the game, but also a good deal about the upbringing and his private life behind one of Test Match Special's best-loved voices, some details of which shattered a few misconceptions.

Away from cricket,  no list of the best sports books of 2012 should fail to include That Near-Death Thing, Rick Broadbent's fine study of the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races through the compelling stories of four riders, nor Touching Distance, the extraordinary story of Olympic rower James Cracknell's voyage of recovery from a serious, personality-changing brain injury suffered in 2010 when he was hit by the wing mirror of a truck while undertaking an endurance challenge in Arizona.

Those with a taste for the adventurous, meanwhile, should try Nick Hurst's Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Master, a gripping tale in which the author, having quit his job in advertising to train in martial arts in Malaysia, ends up writing in effect a biography of his grand master, whose life story could have been the plot for a thriller, spiced with political strife, gangland feuds and fraught love affairs.

Among the welter of Olympic books, special mention should be made of My Time, the full story of the growing up and competitive life of Bradley Wiggins -- now 'Sir' Bradley, of course -- in his own words, and of Yorkshire's Olympic Heroes, by Nick Westby of the Yorkshire Post newspaper, who quite rightly decided that the astonishing medal haul acquired by that one county -- including a staggering seven golds -- should be celebrated with a book of its own.

With two silvers and three bronzes for good measure, Yorkshire -- the county of Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams and the Brownlee brothers among others -- would have finished 12th in the medals table had it been an independent country, a status for which many of its residents believe it has been qualified for years.


Click on the titles for more information or to buy

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (Bantam Press)
The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final , by Richard Moore (Wisden Sports Writing)
Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV , by Martin Kelner (Wisden Sports Writing)
My Animals and Other Family
Be Careful What You Wish For, by Simon Jordan (Yellow Jersey)
Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribe, by Anthony Clavane (Quercus)
The Footballer Who Could Fly, by Duncan Hamilton (Century)
Life's a Pitch, edited by Michael Calvin (Integr8 Books)
El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid: Football's Greatest Rivalry, by Richard Fitzpatrick (Bloomsbury)
The Sweetest Rose: 150 Years of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, by David Warner (Great Northern Books)
Gentlemen & Players: The Death of Amateurism in Cricket by Charles Williams (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
On Warne, by Gideon Haigh (Simon & Schuster)
CMJ: A Cricketing Life, by Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Simon & Schuster)
That Near Death Thing: Inside the Most Dangerous Race in the World, by Rick Broadbent (Orion)
Touching Distance, by James Cracknell and Beverley Turner (Century)
Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster, by Nick Hurst (SportsBooks)
My Time: An Autobiography, by Bradley Wiggins (Yellow Jersey)
Yorkshire's Olympic Heroes, by Nick Westby (Great Northern Books)

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2 comments:

  1. This is a good book to give and gift for the race enthusiasts, not just the bike and car racers but for those who race with razor ground force drifter as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good stuff. It is interesting to read comments.

    ReplyDelete

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