From pitch to page: Writing and sport

The Olympics will bring a marathon of words as well as deeds. Boyd Tonkin looks at the long partnership of writing and sport

Friday 01 August 2008 00:00 BST

It's 11 December 1821: a brisk and sunny winter's day. Around the open ring near Hungerford "the crowd was very great... with streamers flying and music playing, and the country people were pouring in over hedge and ditch in all directions". For the reporter, this bare-knuckle, open-ended fight between local hero Tom "the Gas-man" Hickman and Bristol's battling Bill Neate is his first bout. Finding the venue and reaching it via a last-minute stagecoach has meant a frantic dash from London: prize-fighting is illegal, with fans of "the Fancy" summoned by word of mouth.

By the time Neate – literally, in the days before the cliché – "threw his hat into the ring", the writer's high excitement hits a peak. "In the first round everyone thought it was all over... the Gas-man flew at his adversary like a tiger, struck five blows in as many seconds, three first, and then following him as he staggered back, two more, right and left, and down he fell..." But the heavy, lumbering Neate recovers: "I saw his teeth clenched together and his brows knit close against the sun..." The odds-on favourite, we feel, may be about to take a tumble. And so it proves, but only after 18 unimaginably bloody rounds.

"Everyone thought it was all over": does the great tradition of sports-writing, and even commentating, start here, in a chilly Berkshire field, almost 200 years ago? Plenty of later practitioners think so. William Hazlitt published "The Fight" in February 1822. From the first-person detail of the reporter's reactions to the scene-setting colour of audience and venue; from the character sketches of idols and supporters to the close-focus frenzy of blow-by-blow description, Hazlitt pioneered the moves and styles that still command the genre.

He also kicked off one of its most lingering controversies. As well as some exact reportage – not as technical as in later periods, but still fairly neutral – Hazlitt makes himself a player, his feelings or escapades as much a part of the picture as the crunch of fist on bone.

Hazlitt, whom Tom Wolfe and the sports-mad New Journalists saluted as a forerunner, is the prototype Romantic sportswriter. He wants the reader to care about his experience as much as the unfolding drama of ring, pitch or track. At the end of this line stands the Nick Hornby of Fever Pitch, and the subjective heights and depths of fandom. Classically-inclined, just-the-facts reporters may deliver a more complete account. But, for good or ill, self-effacing plain stylists seldom loom so large in the canon of sporting literature.

Readers repelled by the ring also find it more than slightly disturbing that boxing – which even now can be a fatal pursuit – has given birth to such a handsome proportion of the finest sportswriting. From Damon Runyon and AJ Liebling to Norman Mailer's account of Ali against Foreman (also The Fight) and Joyce Carol Oates's On Boxing, "the Fancy" has always harboured thrill-seeking literati in its ranks. As a young man, the novelist Timothy Mo worked for Boxing News. In her far-reaching Boxing: a cultural history (Reaktion Books), Kasia Boddy looks for the roots of this attraction. She argues that "artists and writers keen to detach themselves from academic or artificial styles have... associated the 'low' activity of boxing" with an aesthetic of "authenticity. Of course, authenticity is a fantasy, but it's a necessary and fruitful fantasy." If sportswriting means a quest for the real, an urge to relish pure event and pure emotion, then the hunt will often lead straight into the blood-stained ring.

Next week, the opening of the Beijing Olympics will fire the starting-pistol on a verbal as well as a sporting marathon. Even in an age of instant audio-visual coverage, thousands of writers will try to recreate the events, the crowds, the agony and the ecstasy for readers who still hope and expect that words can trounce images in the race for authenticity. Most sports reportage, of course, fades almost as quickly as the competitors' sweat. Still, from the age of Hazlitt onwards, the best has often managed to survive, to delight readers far distant from the action in time and place. They may know nothing of the fighters, runners and players brought to grunting, grimacing life except that, for a brief hour or two, they fell under the gaze of a writer with the literary legs to last.

Modern sports literature has long outgrown heat-of-the-moment testimony. In fact, sport has become more an overarching theme than a specific genre; a vehicle engineered to travel into any narrative field. From the blend of autobiography and social history in CLR James's classic of Caribbean cricket, Beyond a Boundary, to Hunter S Thompson's gonzo fantasias of Hell's Angels and Kentucky Derby-goers with their mechanical or mammal steeds, sport can play on every inch of the literary pitch. Meanwhile, its record in fiction deepens year by year.

From Bernard Malamud (The Natural) to David Peace (The Damned Utd); from David Storey (This Sporting Life) to Lionel Shriver (Double Fault), sports-related novels can now span as broad a sweep of styles as fiction about love, war and work – with all of which sport has more than a little in common. And, in The Sportswriter, Richard Ford made a newspaper pro who never quite reached the top into the Everyman hero of a landmark in post-war American fiction.

On the facing page, writers about sport, former champions, and one pioneering publisher, choose their favourite titles. When the Olympics begin to drag, we could follow their lead and savour the posterity that print can lend to the ephemeral highs and lows of the match.

Since Hazlitt, sport and literature have often played on the same team, to mutual benefit ­ despite a gnawing anxiety, among literary sports buffs, that smart readers might mock their "low" passions. At the end of "The Fight", Hazlitt nudges his – largely female – magazine audience to show them that his mate at the bout was reading Rousseau's arch-Romantic novel, La Nouvelle Eloise. "Ladies, after this, will you contend that a love for the Fancy is incompatible with the cultivation of sentiment?" Point taken. It was compatible then; it is today. Now back to the game, and the page.

First eleven: writers and champions choose the sports books that deserve gold

Hunter Davies

Football writer and Wayne Rooney's collaborator

The four volumes of 'Association Football and the Men Who Made It', by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford (1905), are the best books on football ever written. They're the best produced, the best published, with the best photographs and best information. As for my favourite modern book, I loved 'All Played Out', by Pete Davies, about England's World Cup campaign of 1990. I was so jealous of the access he got, and he did it so amusingly.

David Hemery

1968 Olympic gold medallist, 400m hurdles

This may seem an odd choice, but I really liked 'The Way of the Peaceful Warrior' by Dan Millman. He was an international gymnast yet the story is about his learning for life. It's a powerful and inspirational read. And, from a nostalgic point of view, my dad bought me a pictures-and-story book of Emil Zatopek, the Czech runner who won 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon in the 1952 Olympics. His strength of mind in holding on in tough training sessions was an inspiration.

James Lawton

The Independent's chief sports writer

Roger Kahn, 'The Boys of Summer' (1972): Kahn borrowed his title from Dylan Thomas, a passionate cricket fan. The poet would have been tickled. Kahn's account of the Brooklyn Dodgers' triumph in the 1955 World Series, a glory of his youth, carries us into the middle ages of his heroes. Lyrical and poignant, it is about life and lost youth, and coming to terms with the years that follow.

Lynne truss

Former sports reporter and author of 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves'

'Golf Dreams' by John Updike is a collection of pieces written over a lifetime of remembering to push off from the left foot, keep the head down, and say "Schwooo" on impact. Updike writes that golf "converts oddly well to words", which I think may be a great truth.

Lionel Shriver

Novelist; author of 'Double Fault'

'The Queen's Gambit' by Walter Tevis (1963) beautifully integrates sport and character, game and plot. This story about an orphaned girl making her way in a male-dominated sport should appeal to an audience beyond its aficionados, while also providing a riveting glimpse of the hermetic, complex world of chess. Not just a great sports novel, but a great novel.

Geoff Dyer

Novelist; author of 'The Colour of Memory'

Joyce Carol Oates's 'On Boxing' is a model of passionate lucidity. Unashamedly meditative, it never shirks the brutal truth that boxing is a remnant of an era when "physical being was primary and the warrior's masculinity its highest expression."

Timothy O'Grady

Author of 'On Golf'

'Golf in the Kingdom' by Michael Murphy: this is a book unlike any other I have known, the story of a journey through a round of golf down into the darkness and up into the light, ending with a paean to the game and to qualities of transcendence in sport, in the style of Plato's Symposium. I reread it as others do 'Moby-Dick'. A favourite of John Updike's and Arnold Palmer's.

Douglas Kennedy

Novelist; author of 'The Woman in the Fifth'

Like so many American writers, I adore baseball – not just as the perfect elegiac summer sport, but also because it speaks volumes about the acceptance of failure that is so anathema to our "must win" ethos. And Roger Kahn's 'The Boys of Summer' – a beautifully written account of the late lamented Brooklyn Dodgers – combines novelistic technique with great historical insight.

Gordon Burn

Novelist and author of 'Best and Edwards'

David Storey, miner's son turned painter and writer, published 'This Sporting Life' nearly half a century ago. It remains not only one of the great novels about sport but one of the best novels by a living English writer. Its themes – uprootedness, drift, the death of community, exclusion – are as relevant now as in the late 1950s.

Jonathan Davies

Welsh rugby international and TV presenter

I read a lot of sport autobiographies. I really enjoyed Lance Armstrong's: 'It's not about the Bike'. It's different to many others: he talks about his illness, which is inspiring.

Rachel Cugnoni

Founding publisher of the Yellow Jersey list

'A Fan's Notes' by Fred Exley is a novel, and not technically about sport, more the anguish of the follower. 'Rough Ride' by Paul Kimmage is an account written after he retired from professional cycling. The heartbreaking story of how professional sport strips devotees of their innocence, it's honest, raw, fantastically readable.

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