July 5, 2016
Ali’s death offers a moment to consider sports writing
by Bailey Flynn
The passing of Muhammad Ali last month spurred reminiscences and sentiment across media. Ali was as famous for his activism as he was for his boxing, and his mighty cultural influence extended far beyond the sports world. In fact, a significant number of headlines memorializing Ali focused not on his activities in the ring or his epochal stand against the Vietnam draft, but on his impact in the world of writing.
In a piece by James Warren, Vanity Fair affectionately notes the reemergence of the “Smith-Corona Alumni Club of sportswriters” to partake in the memorial, with the likes of Bob Lipsyte, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg publishing valedictory appraisals of Ali’s life and work in the New York Times and at NJ.com. In a different Vanity Fair piece, Terry McDonnell recalls Ali’s lasting connection with Paris Review founder George Plimpton and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who first met on a flight to Zaire to cover the boxer’s infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. The blog such stuff also tracked down an excerpt from Plimpton’s 1977 book Shadow Box, in which he recalls introducing Ali to the poet Marianne Moore. And it doesn’t stop there—outlets from Slate to the New York Times have been reporting on Ali as a dynamo of spoken-word dexterity, a pure “literary muse.”
The book world is not far behind. Reports already abound of new titles soon to be published detailing the life and times of the champion, including a commemorative collection of Sports Illustrated articles and a 2017 big-picture biography by Jonathan Eig forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
They’ll be in good company — recent years have seen a high tide of excellent sports books. Here are some favorites, each promising to pack an Ali-like punch (though perhaps none so much as this 2003 biography, weighing in at seventy-five pounds of silk, leather, and paper).
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon, translated by Nick Caistor
This soon-to-be-published fictional account of Nadia Comăneci’s entrance into Olympic history uses the “slight, unsmiling” figure of the Romanian gymnast to broach topics ranging from her political manipulation by the Ceaușescu regime to her adoration and idolization by Western youth. Lafon, an anarchist writer and musician, promises an enlightening retelling of a major sports icon’s entry onto the public stage, a portrayal done with political sensitivity and a broad historic perspective.
Power Games by Jules Boykoff
Discussion of the convoluted political web that has surrounded the modern Olympic games since their beginnings in the nineteenth century is not exactly new, but the voice of Jules Boykoff, former U.S. Olympic soccer team member, remains fresh. In what promises to be a truly inside-track critique of the fanfare, Boykoff addresses the games as a site of scandal and rebellion. This promises to be particularly elucidating as the world looks ahead to the 2016 Rio games this summer.
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer
For the fan of both athletic fervor and literary experimentation, Sudden Death is a novel whose main action consists of a single tennis match played by the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo at the dawn of the seventeenth century. The book’s structure defies easy summation, jumping from past to present and Europe to America, mirroring the back-and-forth motion of the game it describes. The match itself offers plenty of excitement, but Enrigue manages to use it as the anchor for a far bigger historical drama, a sprawling historical bender that involves the execution of Ann Boleyn, the conquest and conversion of the Americas, and the publication of Sudden Death itself.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
In this novel, a group of friends gathers once each year for an intricate weekend reenactment of the iconic 1985 play in which New York Giant Lawrence Taylor accidentally broke the leg – and ended the career – of Washington Redskin Joe Theismann. Bachelder uses sport to humanize rather than idolize, painting a sympathetic view of manhood centered on a crazed ritual at the altar of American football.
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
A break from the testosterone swamp so much sports writing welters in, Girl Through Glass confronts a young girl’s rise into the demanding world of professional ballet. Besides the endless hours of practice, cutthroat competition, and obsession with old-world notions of beauty that mark the New York City ballet scene, the book also considers more basic human experiences – like love, ambition, and the strange workings of time.
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
Kentucky. The Forge family dynasty, led by patriarch and daughter Henry and Henrietta, are hard at work breeding Hellsmouth, a horse they hope will be the next Secretariat. But when a young, black convict named Allmon Shaughnessy shows up to work on the farm, prejudice and desire both come into immediate, alarming focus.
In this novelization of his life, Scottish football coach Bill Shankly undertakes a heroic effort to lift the city of Liverpool from drudgery through the unlikely success of the soccer team. Expansive and memorable, it’s a book that explores what it means to be a hero, and how sports can become the civic pulse of a place.
Bailey Flynn is an intern at Melville House.