Sports Books

Running

 

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews the latest batch of sports books on The Substantive.

In England there’s no sportswriter quite like Dave Zirin. He writes about sport from the Left with such passion and style that readers will never spot the join. An American, the bias is unsurprisingly towards baseball, basketball and their own bastardised version of ‘football’, yet both the issues raised and his range of coverage are unmistakably internationalist.

Dave’s latest Game Over should by rights be a major publishing event for the committed British sports fan, yet our fan culture is so parochial this superb book will be lucky to get a mention of two. Ownership, athletes on strike and supporting others on strike, Egyptian fans at the core of the Tahrir Square protests, the failed legacy of World Cups and Olympics. this book  has the lot and more. The writing style provides a template for how to mix politics and sport yet keep the reader engaged whose interests leans more towards one or the other. Simply unmissable.

The London 2012 Olympics more than any other event has helped stimulate at last some writing over here of the sort Dave Zirin provides in the USA. Accounting for sport’s meaning beyond the touchline, track, pool or ring. In the build up to the Games Matt and Martin Rogan’s  Britain and the Olympics  provided a rare moment of context. Revisiting the 1948 London Olympics, dubbed the ‘austerity games’ for an insight into what London 2012 might become in a period of similar economic recession. Rich in interview material, one year on from London’s Games this is a book that deserves to be revisited as we ponder over the reality of the legacy claims.

Written since the Games ended Phil Cohen’s On The Wrong Side of the Track? locates  those legacy claims firmly in the social and geographical context of East London. This was where the regeneration was supposed to take place, acting as a leveller between the city’s tourist and retail mecca, the West End, and the depressed East End. Beautifully written, with an uncanny eye for cultural detail Phil’s book is a powerful response to the overblown myths and broken promises of the Olympian legacy agenda.

None of this is to deny the very obvious joy so many of us felt during last year’s summer of sport. What it means though is the need to question the claims made of how these moments of excitement can effect lasting change. Sport is full of such moments, it’s what explains the unique, and enduring appeal. Moments of joy and despair. In terms of the latter a recent outbreak of football hooliganism attracted banner headlines and wall-to-wall media agonising. Of a magnitude city-centre public disorder when the pubs shut rarely if ever attract. Sport, especially football, provides a platform for social and cultural themes which ensure they get noticed, for good or ill.

Geoff Pearson’s recently published  Cans, Cops and Carnivals  is an academic study that deserves to become the definitive work on modern English football fan culture. In-depth ‘participant observation’ over a sixteen year period, the book challenges so-called common-sense notions of hooliganism and the crowd control responses in an effective and thought-provoking way.

Whether  from the stands, or the sofa, no football match would be complete with a vocal suggestion that the Referee needs an optician’s appointment combined with a questioning of his parentage, or words to that effect. We all like to think we know better, and given a chance could do better than the proverbial men (and sometimes women) in black. You are The Ref  by ex-referee Keith Hackett and legendary illustrator Paul Trevillion provides every possible test for your suitability to challenge the officials’ decisions. Strip cartoon style, questions posed and scenarios described, rules patiently explained, the referee’s role described. Ref! With this book at your side blaming your side’s loss on one dodgy decision or another may never be quite the same again.

Football rarely inspires good fiction. Perhaps this is because the reality is so full of intrigue, heroes and villains, loyalty and disloyalty, that the make-believe version would never be as good. Rodge Glass’s Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs is one of the rare exceptions. A wicked plot of talent disappointed and dangerous obsession manages to create both a compelling read of fiction yet rooted in the sport that frames it.

Understanding sport requires more than anything else a social construction of sport, addressing the particularities of inclusion and exclusion of each and every sport. Precious few have produced such studies. A Global History of Running by Thor Gotaas provides this for the most basic sport of all, running, and by doing so gives an insight into how to write something similar for other sports too. Historical, anthropological and cultural with an international coverage  combine to account for both running’s global appeal and national differences. Alexandra Heminsley’s  Running Like a Girl couldn’t be more different. It is written, designed and marketed in ‘chick-lit’ style, aiming for a mass audience of potential women runners with a dose of the self-help manual added too. Not for everyone, yet this is just the kind of writing sport needs if it is to appeal beyond the already committed,  the spectator or the active.

Philosophy Football was founded with the idea of putting the words of Albert Camus on to a  T-shirt . “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations’ I owe to football’ was Albert’s maxim that inspired us so it seems only natural that my pick for book of the quarter is philosophy on the run provided by author Mark Rowlands in his superb book Running With the Pack. This is a book that doesn’t simply explain the appeal of a sport to the individual who does it, but the purpose of sport as play in modern society. Mark doesn’t overload sport with meaning, though as a professional philosopher he does like to cite the ideas behind his core message. That the point of sport is that it is pointless, the joy is to be found in it being play, when we ascribe to it too much of one purpose or another the value of sport loses its meaning. And in the process becomes corporatised, commodified, the stuff of political spin.

There may well never be another summer of sport quite like 2012. Yet every summer there is the potential for sport to excite and infuriate in near equal measure. Once the Champions and Rich Runners Up League Final is out of the way there’s the centenary Tour de France, and the poignancy of the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s fatally heroic protest at the 1913 Derby too.  The Lions down under, the Ashes over here, Murray seeking to match his victory in New York with a home Grand Slam at Wimbledon. All this and more are socially constructed, read these books not to distract from the enjoyment of sport, watching or doing, but to inform and enrich the experience.

Mark Perryman

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available to preview for free from Amazon and Smashwords, documenting high-level football and the journey of travelling around Europe following a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley