Fields of Courage, by Max Davidson

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The Independent Culture

"Best of" listings books can be a refuge for lazy, cut-and paste writing, but by introducing a moral as well as a sporting dimension to his search for the bravest competitors down the years, Max Davidson brings something new to the genre.

As with his book on sporting chivalry, It's Not the Winning That Counts, his selection is quirky.

It's hard to argue with the physical and emotional courage of little Kerri Strug, the 13-year-old gymnast at the 1996 Olympics who, having injured herself in her previous vault, limped up to try again having been told that this last effort would decide whether her US team won the gold. It's equally difficult to overestimate the ethical strength the New Zealander Graham Mourie showed in 1981 when telling his rugby-mad nation he was relinquishing the All Blacks captaincy and refusing to play against the touring South Africans because of apartheid.

But is Alex Ferguson's dropping of his friend Jim Leighton, then the Manchester United goalkeeper, for an FA Cup final replay after he had shipped three goals in the first game really in the same class?

Never mind, Davidson does well to rescue other more worthy candidates from the footnotes of history, such as Glenn Burke, the only openly gay player in the decidedly macho world of 1970s Major League baseball, who also invented the high-five, and Peter Norman of Australia, who as the third man on the podium – and the only white one – visibly supported the US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they gave their clenched-fist Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Davidson is an affable guide with an amusing turn of phrase; if he ever tires of the good guys, I for one would enjoy reading his choice of sport's biggest rotters.

Published in hardback by Little Brown, £16.99

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