What a summer it would have been. The Tokyo Olympics. Euro 2020. The Tour de France. Wimbledon. The Masters. But no: the obvious kiboshed them all. So instead, sports fans up and down Britain have been forced to channel their sporting passions through reruns of forgotten finals on YouTube, solo keepy-uppies in parks, or just dreams.
But there is another way to re-live the highs of sporting glory this summer. In fact, with lockdown still in force, could there be a better time to unfold the deck chair, tear open the strawberries and bask in the sun with some of the best writing about sport? Sport, after all, has inspired some of the greatest writers in the English language.
So put down the remote, or come home from the park, and pick up one of these terrific books about the beauty of the sports we've been missing, from social histories to memoirs, tactical analyses to fans-eye-views.
The Tour de France (road cycling)
The Tour de France was due to happen last week. Now, organisers hope, the world's greatest road cycling race will take place from August 29. But if you can't wait until then,
is a great way to grease the mind's thighs in preparation. This warts-and-all exposé of what it's really like at the pinnacle of cycling is a fascinating personal story that lifts the lid on all aspects of the sport, from what riders really think of Team Sky to whether doping still a The Secret Cyclist thing. "I'm not hiding my identity as a gimmick,” he writes, “I'm being mysterious because in my world, riders are meant to be seen and not heard."
Travel writer Tim Moore has no such reservations. But then, he's no pro cyclist. He's a jaw-achingly funny writer who wanted to find out what riding the Tour de France is really like. So he set out to cycle the entire route, all 2,256 miles of it. The result was
, a hilariously drawn account of the (literal) ups and downs of the trip, peppered with odd trivia about the Tour's history – particularly that of cheating, a tradition that Moore quickly embraces. It's a great read, funny and poignant – a must for any cycling fan. French Revolutions
If you want the story of a real pro, Bradley Wiggins'
is an autobiographical classic. But for those more interested the race itself, William Fotheringham's brilliant and insightful My Time provides a definitive account of how Britain “conquered the Tour de France”. It charts the history, from the week Bill Burl and Charles Holland became the first Britons to ride in the Tour in 1937 to when “Wiggo” became the first to win it in 2012, in a personality-packed ode to British cycling. Roule Britannia 2020 Summer Olympics
Tokyo 2020 is now Tokyo 2021... though we still have to call it “Tokyo 2020” for branding reasons. Anyway, a year is plenty of time to read up on it. And veteran sports writer David Goldblatt's
is the place to start. Because, for Goldblatt, the Olympics are never just the Olympics – they're a host nation's window to the world. So politics is a big part of it, and Goldblatt's no slouch when it comes to examining its social and political context, too. The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
Talking of sport as politics, no sporting event has been more nakedly hijacked for political gain than when Hitler did so in 1936. Oliver Hilmes' captivating
tells the story of “the Nazi Olympics”. Told through the voices of those who were there, it brings to life all the drama of those wild 16 days (the ceremony included 20,000 doves, 3,000 singers and a giant zeppelin), from the triumph of Jesse Owens to the scandal when an American tourist broke through security to plant a kiss on Hitler. Berlin 1936
The 1936 Games were only the third Olympics in which women were allowed to compete in track and field. Roseanne Montillo's
is a thrilling account of the women who trailblazed the Olympics from 1928. It started with Betty Robinson, a high school student and the first ever women's 100m Olympic champion. In revealing Robinson's incredible story (there a few sensational twists) Montillo traces women’s fight for inclusion and equality in competitive sports while unearthing age-old examples of the challenges women in competitive sports continue to face today. Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women 2020 Summer Paralympics
Sadly, precious few books have been written about the Paralympics, which should also have taken place this year. It seems a particular shame in Britain, given that British athletes won a staggering 64 gold medals in Rio last time around, 34 in London four years earlier and 42 at Beijing 2008. Of the books that have been written about paralympic athletes, Cathy Wood's
is the best, an awe-inspiring celebration the lives and achievments of the Brits who conquered Beijing in 2008. Paralympic Heroes Wimbledon (tennis)
For the true athlete aesthete, David Foster Wallace's groundbreaking essay,
, bursts with insights about how maths and metaphysics make tennis the most beautiful game there is, through the prism of Roger Federer himself. Then there's Federer Both Flesh and Not by John McPhee, the New Yorker veteran and grandmaster of long-form narrative journalism. In that, McPhee uses a single, iconic tennis match – the epic 1968 US Open semi final between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe – to expose deeper truths, not just about the game of tennis, but of life itself. These are pretty much the best two books on tennis ever written. Levels of the Game
For a less cerebral but equally compelling tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thesis, William Skidelsky's
is an exhilarating examination of the sports super-fan (a bit like Nick Hornby's Federer and Me but for tennis, and real). Riotously funny, and painfully honest in places, Skidelski interrogates tennis from a fans-eye-view, as he wonders what it is about the Swiss star that transfixes him, and countless others. What is it about the way he plays? Why was his rivalry with Nadal? And is Federer the sweet spot, where tennis and beauty collide? Fever Pitch UEFA Euro 2020 (football)
Like the Olympics, Euro 2020 is also postponed to next year. But one book that can Gegenpress the international football wolves from the door is
by Pete Davies – the book Nick Hornby said "helped me get One Night In Turin Fever Pitch published". It's a proper boots-on-the-ground investigative masterpiece, for which Davies followed the England team through the Italia '90 World Cup. Through the kind of access of which journalists only dream today, Davies brilliantly reports conversations with players, the manager and peripheral figures in the build up to that infamous semi-final against Germany when Gazza cried, England lost and football changed forever.
For something with a bit more scope, David Goldblatt's 992-page
is kick-you-in-the-guts fantastic. Written in 2007, it might now appear a trifle dated now, but for what it lacks in up-to-the-minute coverage, it makes up for in sheer muscle, zipping through time and space, from Aztec-era South America to Brazilian favelas and beyond. Weaving social history, economic analysis and sportsfan psychology with his own illuminating personal reflections, this is a must read for the thinking football fan. The Ball is Round
Covid-19 may have changed football forever. Even now the Premier League is back (behind closed doors), it's not quite the same. So if all you really want is to pump life back into your flagging passion for the game,
by Eduardo Galeano is a literary defibrillator kit. Galeano's way with words is nothing short of magical, and his love for the game infectious. It is a hymn, really, to the romance, history and drama of a "great pagan mass". He has that rarest of abilities to capture a moment or a mood in a single phrase, to immortalise an opinion you didn't even know you had. Football in Sun and Shadow The Masters (golf)
With its blend of thought and sport, nature rambling and rivalry, golf has for more than a century seemed the ideal subject for a writer. And since both the Masters and the US PGA Tour were postponed until the autumn, now is the time to dip into the canon. Vivien Saunders'
is a hole in one for anyone who wants to keep their head in the game. Golf, after all, is one of the few outdoor sports where you cannot muscle your way to greatness. In golf, finesse and style trumps brawn and power. And here, the Women's British Open champion provides an illuminating insight into the psychology of the sport. In her mind, to master the art of winning, you must first master the art of playing poorly. The Golfing Mind
P. G. Wodehouse knew about playing poorly. And his collection of short stories,
is a rib-tickling classic of sporting fiction that captures all the charm and drama of the fairway in 10 short stories. As he says, “Few things draw two men together more surely than a mutual inability to master golf.” At the very least, it'll make you feel better about your own wayward swing. The Clicking of Cuthbert
Mark Twain may have (allegedly) called golf “a good walk ruined”, but for writer and psychologist Stephen Cartmell, the walking is what makes golf... well, golf. In
, he set out to play on 18 of the most beautiful golf courses in Britain with one criteria – they had to have a sea view. The result is not only a tender, passionate and insightful love letter to the game but also a hilarious guide to understanding Britain and its curiously comical, golf-guzzling natives. Golf On The Edge