Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

What is about sport that so many of us love so much? Is it the inherent drama of 22 people chasing a leather ball around a field, or of two people punching each other in the face until one falls over, or of a group of people riding horses really, really fast? Of course it is. It is that, and so much more – the allegiances, the rivalries, the displays of extreme human athleticism, the fallen heroes, the underdogs come good, the triumphs, the tragedies and every other metaphor for life that sport entails.

It's for those reasons exactly that so many great books have been written about sport, from explosive memoirs to theoretical essays, love-letter novels to philosophical texts. So, without further ado, here is a selection of great books for the sports lover in your life.

They Don’t Teach This by Eniola Aluko (2019)

When Eniola Aluko, the former England striker, called out what she saw as an endemic culture of racism in football in 2017, it ended her international career and launched a torrent of vitriol from the people she exposed. But she wasn't cowed by the abuse. This is one of the most exhilarating and moving memoirs of any footballer, male or female – not only an account of her extraordinary playing days, but of her struggle to embrace her duel identity as a British-Nigerian sporting icon, and how she stood up to racism when nobody else would.

Federer, Both Flesh And Not by David Foster Wallace (2006)

No writer has written about tennis with such passion and insight as David Foster Wallace. He had a supreme ability to impart the most complex and original ideas with such folksy and unpretentious vim, that you almost forget what he's saying has never been said before. And Federer, Both Flesh and Not is his masterpiece, one of the most penetrating and evocative lid-lifts on the game of tennis ever inked, with Roger Federer and his “great, liquid whip” forehand as his muse.

The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling (1949)

You'd struggle to find anyone with a cannier ability to find profundity in the simplicity of boxing as A. J. Liebling, pound-for-pound the greatest narrative boxing writer in history. Described by Sports Illustrated as “the best American sports book of all time”, Leibling takes us on a journey into the bruised heart of the golden age of boxing – from Sugar Ray Robinson's dramatic comeback to Rocky Marciano's rise to heavyweight glory – with this gripping collection of narrative journalism that reveals elegance and beauty in the most violent sport of all.

A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory (2019)

The poignant story of the youngest person to ever swim the English Channel, told from Tom Gregory’s own perspective. In 1988, just four years after learning to swim, Gregory swam the 12-hour length of the channel, encouraged by his coach John Bullet. The extraordinary story, told here with child-like ebullience, is as much about fostered kinship as it is about human potential, and won the William Hill 2018 Sports Book of the Year as a result.

Believe by Nicola Adams (2017)

This October, boxer Nicola Adams will dance again. But not around a ring, like when she became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 2012, but around a dancefloor in the first same-sex pairing on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. If that's all you know about Adams, then you really should read her autobiography – a viscerally inspiring account of all the training, the injuries, the bruising prejudice and, ultimately, the glory that – all in – moulded one of Britain's most trailblazing and beloved athletes.

Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer (2019)

In 2013, 19-year-old Lara Prior-Palmer became the first woman and youngest person ever to win the Mongol Derby, “the world’s longest, toughest horse race” – a 1,000-miles trek across the Mongolian steppe. Coming into the race wildly underprepared, she braved intense heat, fearsome storms, dehydration, hunger, illness and falls. The William Hill Prize shortlister is both a beguiling coming-of-age story and a story of underdog magic, resilience and naked ambition that The Daily Telegraph described as one of 2019's best memoirs: “a perfect prescription for anybody who thinks millennials are running low on raw grit and deep, drifting thought.”

Mind Game by Michael Calvin and Thomas Bjorn (2019)

Many have tried, but no book has climbed deeper into the mind of the modern professional golfer than this. In this groundbreaking, and at times moving, study of golf and its heroes, veteran sports writer Michael Calvin and ex-pro Thomas Bjorn, draw back the curtain on one of the world's most mentally demanding sports, from the principles and philosophies of some of the world's best players to the internal battles they so often face.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup by J. L. Carr (1975)

Football fiction is a hard thing to get right. The best is probably Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, but that's far too obvious choice given the fact that, if you like football, you've almost certainly either read it or seen the movie. This comic fantasy about a team of nobodies who make it all the way to Wembley is one of the most underrated football novels in the canon – a hilarious, wacky and wild love letter to mud-blood-and-guts football of the lower leagues, whose insights into the modern game feel remarkably ahead of their time.

Beyond a Boundary by C L R James (1963)

This is the book that the novelist VS Naipaul called “one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies”. It's also one of the best books to come out of sport, and certainly the best on cricket. C L R James was a cricketer, a novelist, a historian and a world-class thinker. He is, you might say, where philosophy and cricket collide. And this beautiful, warm and witty memoir-cum-celebration of the game he devoted his life to not only embraces cricket as both a sport and an art form, but knocks the barriers of race, class and empire for six.


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