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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
Jesse Owens was deservedly the most famous American athlete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, his four gold medals defiantly flipping the bird to Hitler’s ideas of white supremacy. Here Brown shines a light on another remarkable story from that event: the gold-medal-winning effort by the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington. Capturing the convergence of a boatmaker, a coach, and an unlikely group of young rowers, this informational and inspiring book captures a moment in history as it chronicles an unlikely journey to victory.
Four Days to Glory: Wrestling with the Soul of the American Heartland, by Mark Kreidler
If the word wrestling makes you think of leathery, muscle-bound men with bad haircuts delivering bad monologues before beating the tar out of each other with folding chairs, Kreidler wants you to know about a more honest version of the sport. Wrestling is to Iowa what basketball is to Indiana, and Kreidler spent much of 2004–05 chronicling the efforts of two young men attempting to join the elite ranks of wrestlers who won state titles in each of their four years at high school. A fascinating look at a little understood and little appreciated sports subculture.
Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies, and Bull Riders: A Year inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour, by Josh Peter
The Professional Bull Riders Tour is arguably the most dangerous and least financially rewarding of all sporting endeavors—even professional football players rarely get saddled with a punctured lung. This profile of the 2004 PBR season offers a penetrating (ahem) portrait of a sport caught between bush leagues and the big time. (A million-dollar payout for the eventual champion is in deferred dollars, not a novelty-size check.) Like eight seconds on a bull, this book is tough to walk away from.
The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop, by Bill Jones
How many athletes have won competitions they weren’t even eligible to enter? In post-WWII England, amateur sports were ruled by an aristocracy for whom fairness was selectively enforced—and the fact that John Tarrant once received $20 for a boxing match meant a permanent ban from his true passion, distance running. Running as a “ghost,” an unregistered runner who slipped into the back as the starting gun fired, he won dozens of races but, despite overwhelming support from the running community, was never able to compete officially. Jones was obsessive and difficult, but so was the bureaucracy he fought against, and Jones captures it all beautifully.
The Great Swim, by Gavin Mortimer
In 1926 four American women—Gertrude Ederle, Mille Gade, Lillian Cannon, and Clarabelle Barrette—competed to do something no woman had ever done: swim across the English Channel. Tabloid newspapers promoted their favorites to an enthralled public eager to forget the still-recent horrors of WWI. Drawing on rich source material, Mortimer paints a picture that seems strangely contemporary, despite the elapsed time. As in all the best narrative nonfiction, the story moves in time, portraying the lives of the swimmers and providing vivid detail about the era. This works both as a story of sporting competition and an exploration of our neverending fascination with celebrity.
Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story; The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver, by Brian Donovan
Wendell Scott was like a lot of stock-car racers in the early 1950s: he grew up poor, he had a rebellious streak, he didn’t like regular work, and he loved cars. (He even had a little bit of experience running moonshine.) He was different in one important way: he was black. Virtually alone, competing in the still-segregated South, Scott faced hostility from competitors, fans, and promoters alike. By the time he retired in the early 1970s, he had earned the respect of his peers and even NASCAR fans. Donovan, a Pulitzer winner and an amateur race-car driver, offers a gripping story of a brave and fascinating man who deserves recognition for his solitary accomplishment.
Harnessing Anger: The Way of an American Fencer, by Peter Westbrook and Tej Hazarika
Unknown to the general public, a legend in fencing circles, Westbrook came to the sport from an unlikely place as a biracial poor kid in Newark, New Jersey. Encouraged to try fencing by his Japanese mother, he channeled his anger about his missing father, his poverty, and his place in a racist society into success as a competitor—becoming both U.S. champion and Olympic medalist. In this outstanding sports autobiography, Westbrook discusses his struggle to keep the very thing that led to his success from ruining the rest of his life.
On Bullfighting, by A. L. Kennedy
For Kennedy, bullfighting, or writing about it, was an antidote to suicide. Having fallen victim to depression, she accepted an assignment to cover Spanish bullfighting to “see if she could write again.” (Answer: yes.) Hemingway may provide our best-known literary touchstone, but Kennedy is practically anti-Hemingway in her approach: instead of emphasizing physicality and machismo, she writes sensitively about the more spiritual aspects of ritual bullfighting, finding a connection between her own confrontation with death and what bullfighters experience every time they step into the ring. A graceful meditation on the horror and beauty of a blood sport.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand
You didn’t think we were going to leave this one out, did you? Yes, this book has become justly famous, adapted to the silver screen, and had its title used liberally to shorthand other excellent works of popular sports history (we’re still waiting for the Seabiscuit of synchronized swimming, however). But if you haven’t read this unparalleled rags-to-riches horse-racing story for yourself, it’s still in print and available. Hillenbrand’s detailed and dramatic re-creation of Seabiscuit’s life and accomplishments, and those of the men who owned, trained, and rode him, is a testament to what years of careful research and a gift for storytelling can accomplish.
This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own: A Journey to the End of Boxing, by Jonathan Rendall
In 1998, we called this book “the very best book on boxing in many a year”—and it’s still one of the best. Rendall makes the argument that boxing is based on the disposability of its only commodity (the fighters) and the invincibility of its most unsavory element (the promoters) by exploring the career of Colin McMillan, then the world featherweight champion. Was boxing ever filled with lovable, colorful characters, or was that just how some writers chose to portray them? According to Rendall, the sport is now run by sharks and piranhas, sharpening their teeth for the next new talent. A dispiriting journey but an unforgettable read.
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