According to legend, the Jade Emperor decreed that the order of the Chinese zodiac calendar would be decided by the order in which the 12 animals arrived to his great gathering. The wiley Rat tricked the Ox into giving him a ride and, just as they neared the finish line, Rat leaped down and landed ahead of Ox, winning first place by devious effort. Thus, the Rat was declared the winner, standing highest on the podium of time.
This story may be the perfect allegory for modern sport. Alongside the Olympic ideals of peaceful competition and collaboration, over the past few years we’ve witnessed the corrupt side of sport — from doping to bribery. And now the Year of the Rat coincides with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
So, in this grand year of sporting celebration, I recommend for your reading pleasure those books that view sport authentically, acknowledging both the very best and worst of humanity.
First up, some classic Olympic reads. “The Boys of Winter,” by Wayne Coffey, tells the story of the U.S.A.’s men’s hockey team and their “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. “Triumph,” by Jeremy Schaap, deftly explains the various political and cultural tangles of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when Jesse Owens famously won four gold medals in defiance of Nazi Germany’s Aryan ideals, and where Jewish people and Africans were at first banned from the games. “Just Don’t Fall,” by paralympian Josh Sundquist, shares his amazing story of surviving cancer as a child and becoming a world-class, paralympian skier.
For non-Olympic sports books, “Among the Thugs,” by American journalist Bill Buford, is a must-read. In 1982, Buford, living in England, witnessed the violent occupation of a train to Cardiff by football fans coming home from a match. This experience started his nearly decade-long fascination with hooliganism. His resulting book transcends sport to reach something essential about humans, violence, terrorism and groupthink. It’s a fitting book for our times.
Sport can also provide impetus for the individual to transcend our baser natures, and a recent biography, “Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary,” by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox, should be required reading for anyone interested in the intersections between sport, politics and culture. It’s an amazing story: In 1967, when women were still banned from running the Boston Marathon in America, a determined 13-year-old Canadian girl, Maureen Wilton, broke the world record at 3 hours, 15 minutes, 23 seconds. Her story inspires and confirms the complicated, mystical relationship between sport and individual drive, at any age, for any gender.
For more on that motif, “Ashita no Joe” (“Tomorrow’s Joe”), the award-winning boxing manga from Ikki Kajiwara, illustrated by Tetsuya Chiba, is a true literary sport classic. The story of Joe Yabuki, a troubled orphan who finds redemption in boxing while in juvenile prison, will stay with you forever and represents the stories of all the athletes who have burned their fire until “nothing is left but pure white ash.”
Another book that shows the complications of glory is tennis great Andre Agassi’s “Open: An Autobiography.” It’s a beautifully honest tale of raw talent and a child’s pain, and of ultimately finding the best inside yourself. Agassi’s determination and vulnerability expands the definition of champion.
Finally, especially recommended if you’re still savoring the aftertaste of Rugby World Cup fever, find time before the Olympics to read “Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation” by John Carlin. There’s also an award-winning movie of the same name, but nothing beats the book for understanding the complexity of Nelson Mandela’s decision to use sport as a tool to redefine and unite his country following the white-supremacist rule of apartheid.
So let the games begin, and let it be a summer of content as well as contest. Although we all know the beast in sport, there’s beauty there too.