4 Unbeatable sport memoirs

Mike Cormack

These sporting memoirs capture the true spirit of the game they discuss, and often the ugly toll elite sportsmanship can take on a player's life. 

Sport is at its best a transcendent experience, capable of unifying entire nations in celebration of the peaks of human endeavour.

Though the Corinthian ideals of professional sport are increasingly lost as its marketisation continues apace, the stories of athletes—from the top of their field down to the journeymen—can be utterly fascinating. These are people striving to achieve greatness, the sacrifices they make on the way and the astonishing peaks and troughs they endure.

Here then are some of the best memoirs and stories from those who took it to the mountain:

 

The Fight by Norman Mailer

The Fight text book cover

Mailer’s reputation has perhaps dimmed somewhat in recent decades, but in the 1970s he was the "king of writers"—a nickname given to him by the entourage of Muhammad Ali, as he enjoys relating. And here Mailer’s description of the build-up and action of the Rumble In The Jungle, the Ali vs Foreman match in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974, is very fine, taking us through the heightened boredom of the training and then in magnificent tactile detail of the fight itself.

The match is famous of the “rope-a-dope” strategy employed by Ali, but Mailer makes clear how much of an underdog Ali was (at age 32, while Foreman was 25), and what an astonishing feat it was to beat Foreman, a terrifyingly powerful puncher accustomed to devastating opponents within two rounds. He also brings out the personalities of the two men in fine detail, as well as those surrounding the fight, like Mobutu, Don King, Joe Frazier, and David Frost.

The Fight, like the bout it describes, transcends boxing in its description of the almost mythic Ali, with all his courage, strength, intelligence and charisma, in one of the greatest sporting events of the last century. The book very nearly keeps up with it, which is extraordinary.

 

Open by Andre Agassi

Open an autobiography

The superb double-meaning title of Andre Agassi’s memoirs suggests that his book will be more revealing than most. And so it is: taking us from his fledgeling steps being trained by his demanding father (“If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be number one in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey”), to his early years as a professional to his later period as a gnarled and grizzled veteran. Agassi makes clear his hatred of tennis, his father and the entire gruelling ordeal of the professional game.

Few books better suggest the strain of top-level sport, and the mental strength needed to surmount it—particularly when it’s not what you want to be doing but, like a thoroughbred horse, it’s all that your life has been based upon.

"Open suggests Agassi's soul is still at war, seething with childhood pain and unresolved conflicts"

Open is remarkably detailed, as though allowing the reader to enjoy what the writer David Foster Wallace called Agassi’s “literally one a billion” vision, and is told in the vivid present tense. There’s a sense that Agassi is still paying penitence for the flashiness of his earlier incarnation, as when he won Wimbledon in 1992 with long dyed hair and his relationship with Brooke Shields.

Open suggests his soul is still at war, seething with childhood pain and unresolved conflicts. We humble mortals expect that success is its own balm, but the price extracted can, Open implies, never fully be repaid.

Read more: How to let go of a toxic relationship with your dad

 

Full Time by Tony Cascarino

Full Time by Tony Cascarino

Footballers, by and large, have not been the most articulate group to describe their lives and careers. Some are content to trade in-jokes and dressing-room banter; some (like those by Kenny Dalglish and Michael Owen) stultify with accounts of dazzling careers that never spring to life, while some (such as Roy Keane) bristle with scores yet to be settled. Few capture the inner life of the football player. The one book that really does that is Full Time by the former Chelsea, Celtic and Ireland striker Tony Cascarino.

Inner turmoil, abuse from fans on the street (“You’re f*****g s**t, you… You’re a useless big b*****d”), your child’s friend mocking them, and the sensation of huge amounts of money slipping through your fingers all show the difficulty of maintaining enough zen to be able to play. (He actually lists how much money he has earned from his career at the start of the book, then deducts the costs from agents, ex-wives, school fees and top-rate tax, each feeling like a genuine bite from his soul). There’s also the small fact of him, then Ireland’s most capped international player, not actually being eligible to play for the nation.

But the genuinely unsettling thing is when he talks of the voices in his head. Of course, we all have self-doubt, but in Cascarino’s case, it’s like an elephant on his back, weighing him down enormously. “When it comes to the art of shooting oneself in the foot, I have always been world-class. I think too much during games… I do it all the wrong way—I think about how I’m playing as I play.” And so the voices crowd in:

“You look like a man about to face a firing squad.”

“I’m not listening.”

“Or Neville Southall.”

“P**s off.”

“Did you notice how big the goalie was when you placed the ball?”

“I did, actually.”

“The whole world is watching. Frightening, isn’t it?”

Football is a team game, but it is also hard, uncharitable and nearly always about the individual player seeking to advance his career. Full Time, more than any, suggests the psychic wounds that the game inflicts.

 

Second Wind by Jimmy White

Second Wind by Jimmy White

Snooker fan favourite Jimmy White’s reputation as “the Whirlwind” suggests his character: high-paced, unpredictable, and dangerous. And so his second memoir is a bracingly honest, tracing his roots in Balham and Tooting in South London, as “a kid thirsty for excitement and action” to his time at the top of the snooker game in the 1980s.

White is frank on his drugtaking, admitting to a period of crack cocaine addiction following his loss to Steve Davis in the final of the 1984 World Championship. (He writes that Kirk Stevens, the Canadian player who always dressed in white, introduced the drug to him, but later withdrew this and apologised to Stevens). He suggests his drug-taking cost him “10 world titles” though perhaps that’s wishful thinking, the talk of someone who coulda been a contender.

The book isn’t elegantly written, but the rough-and-ready style captures White’s colourful character, and there are stories galore of everyone from Alex Higgins and Paul Hunter to South London mobsters.

 

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