Heroic feats of the mind

THE ESQUIRE BOOK OF SPORTSWRITING ed Greg Williams, Penguin pounds 6.99
Click to follow
SPORTSWRITING, like sex, tight-rope walking and most other things, works best when you don't think too much about what you are doing. Its natural home is on the sports pages, where enthusiasts write for enthusiasts, and nobody feels they have to justify their obsessions to anybody else. But once sportswriting moves off the back pages and into the features sections, it can quickly become self-conscious and enfeebled by insecurity.

This Penguin collection contains 17 pieces culled from the last 30 years of Esquire magazine. Greg Williams introduces them as part of "a literary movement that treated sport with the level of seriousness with which it was popularly regarded". The net effect of the collection, however, is to give a bad name to seriousness. Perhaps the pieces appeared to better effect in their original form as one-off features. But gathered within book covers, all this effortful new journalism seems to be straining to prove that sport is worth writing about - and of course failing, since anybody who isn't already a sports fan isn't going to be turned into one by fine writing.

One weakness is that scarcely any of the pieces are about sport itself, the matches, contests, games or fights. Most of them aren't even about active sportsmen or women. (Come to think of it, none of them are about sportswomen at all.) Some are about managers or journalists, and nearly half are about sportsmen who have been sidelined, either permanently, by the passage of time, or temporarily, in the cases of Diego Maradona and Mike Tyson, by the police.

No doubt the editors of Esquire wanted to commission something more weighty than mere sports reports, but the trouble is that sportsmen off the field are no more interesting than the rest of us. A piece about George Best and his difficulties with drink is touted in the introduction as "an extraordinary piece of work ... about nothing less than life itself". But despite the best efforts of the author, Best seemed rather less entertaining than any other drunk I've met. The collection ends with an article about Mike Tyson's extensive use of the prison library while in jail. An inspiring story, in its way, but Tyson's critical responses to Voltaire, Tolstoy and Hemingway are, to be honest, not all that stimulating.

Of course Mike Tyson, like other great sportsmen, is mentally exceptional. But his mental gifts emerge in the boxing ring, not the library. What made Tyson a great champion, and may yet again, is that he wanted to win much more than his often larger opponents, and was able to harness this desire to his will. It is this intellectual element that can lift sport above the mundane. The great moments in sport are heroic feats of concentration: Muhammad Ali weathering the fearsome young Foreman for eight rounds before picking him off; Bob Willis (not Botham) at Headingley, wild-eyed in his determination to bowl out the Australians; Nick Faldo, cocooned in intensity, sinking a 40-footer at Augusta, oblivious to the roar from the next green which erupts in the middle of his stroke.

The best articles in this collection are about the passions of the sports fan, rather than sport itself. Discouraged by the feature format from describing the games they care about, some of the contributors do manage to communicate their enthusiasm. Nick Hornby contributes a version of the Arsenal supporter's lament that was later to expand into Fever Pitch. Laura Thompson does the same for Jimmy White, reliving the nation's annual disappointment as he loses in the final of the World Championship yet again (this piece was written in 1993, which only adds poignancy to her concluding thought it would be wrong if this sublime player never wins the Championship). At a less exalted level of snooker, "The Grudge Match" between Martin Amis and Julian Barnes conveys the frustrations of those who aspire to century breaks but scarcely ever sink a colour.

The excitements and disappointments that punctuate the life of every sports fan animate the pieces. It is a pity, though, that a collection of sportswriting should only come alive when it examines the writers rather than the sport.