Books of the year 2013: Sport


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The Independent Culture

The memoir is the staple diet in sports publishing, and this has been a particularly full-on year for them. The more honest the better, of course, and there's none more so than Mike Tyson's Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography (Harpersport, £20). It's full of staggering stories: fighting high on coke and dope – which didn't stop him winning a fight in 38 seconds; wearing what he calls a "whizzer", or fake penis filled with clean urine, to foil the drug-testers; badly beating up fans who asked for autographs… Tyson is in full-on confessional mode and I can't recall a more self-excoriating autobiography, but it makes for grimly compelling reading.

As ruthlessly honest is I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Penguin, £8.99, with David Lagercrantz). Telling the Swede's story of his journey from a Malmo ghetto to his current status as one of the best three footballers in the world, it's been compared to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, and it's a gripping tale from a man who could start a fight in an empty dressing room, who cheerfully admits he plays better when he's angry and likes to store up grudges for years until he can get his revenge. As the saying goes, he takes no prisoners, and his book is all the better for it.

The most eagerly awaited British sporting memoir this year has been Alex Ferguson's second stab at the genre, which covers the last phase of his career as manager of Manchester United. As a United fan I loved My Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, £25), for all the factual errors that have been pointed out. It does feel at times like an exercise in score-settling – which is entertaining in itself.

There's no getting even in Harry Redknapp's Always Managing: My Autobiography (Ebury Press, £20); as countless press conferences have demonstrated over the years, he's as ready as ever with the nice line and funny story. There are no satisfactory explanations of the fallings-out with which his career has been dotted, but it's a diverting romp through a colourful and eventful life.

For all their professional achievements, neither Ferguson's nor Redknapp's life story can compare with Mo Farah's. Twin Ambitions: My Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) recounts his journey from Somalia – where he was separated from his twin brother and left the country at the age of eight – to London, and double gold at the Olympic Stadium. He's clearly a lovely bloke but he's not afraid of a fight, sometimes with his fists, and his increasing determination to take control of his career makes this book a terrific read.

Away from autobiography, perhaps the most fascinating book of the year is David Epstein's The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete (Yellow Jersey, £16.99). The conclusion isn't very surprising: how athletes perform is down to nature and nurture – but that's a huge oversimplification, and the journey to that conclusion is absorbing and full of fascinating detail. And unlike some books of this ilk, you don't need a science degree to grasp the arguments.

Jamie Reid's Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang (Racing Post, £20) superbly evokes a lost world of seedy glamour, when spivs, racketeers and glamour pusses rubbed shoulders with aristocratic high-rollers. It would make a fantastic film. Also ripe for the big screen – it's already been optioned by Harvey Weinstein, presumably with an eye to making the new Chariots of Fire – is Daniel James Brown's wonderful The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin (Macmillan, £20), which follows the US rowing eight to the 1936 Olympics. Brown focuses on Joe Rantz, abandoned as a boy by his family in the backwoods of Washington state, who fought his way through the Depression to sporting glory.

In Spain, footballing glory has always been politically charged with Barcelona flying the Catalonian, anti-Franco flag, Real Madrid the loyalist standard. Sid Lowe's Fear and Loathing in La Liga (Yellow Jersey, £18.99) is effectively a history of modern Spain told through one of world football's most intense rivalries. It conjures up the complex passions of a country whose national team has become not only the best in the world at present, but, some say, the best ever.