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Sports autobiographies: picking a winner

Fame has nothing to do with a good story, as countless volumes prove

May 6, 2014 | By:

There's more to sports autobiographies than triumph-over-adversity cliché. Kate Battersby, a judge at this month's Sports Book Awards, explains what makes a good read

Sports autobiographies_Alex Ferguson_620

When Alex Ferguson released his autobiography last year it became the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever

For a long time – a horribly long time – the book most frequently hailed as the greatest sports autobiography ever published was It’s Not About The Bike by Lance Armstrong.

Published in May 2000, it focused on his diagnosis with and recovery from stage four testicular cancer, to victory in the Tour de France.

He would amass seven such wins before his retirement in 2005, all expunged since he was proven in 2012 to have taken illegal drugs throughout his career.

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The front cover of the paperback edition, still available today, carries an unintentionally prophetic review line from The Independent: “His story is the stuff of legend.”

Let’s check the definition of legend: “A story sometimes regarded as historical but not authenticated.” Yep, that sounds about right.

Armstrong’s book was garlanded with many awards. On 21 May, this year’s British Sports Book Awards are handed out at Lord’s cricket ground. Among the gongs is the prize for the best biography or autobiography, a verdict decided by myself and Fleet Street sports alumni Mick Dennis and Bill Bradshaw.

Translating success into words

Autobiography is a curious organism, as one person’s recollection of their own career rarely chimes entirely with those watching from the sidelines. Nonetheless, we three judges are reasonably sure we are not handing the laurels to a book which will later turn out to be fiction.

So what makes a really outstanding sports biography or autobiography? Fame has nothing to do with it, as countless volumes prove. Football is the worst offender. Wayne Rooney published two by the time he was 27, with the second puffed as “his story in his words”.

Funny how that doesn’t whet the appetite. But no sport is immune. Greg Norman’s eponymous effort is a relentlessly dreary account of business interests and marketing opportunities, with little room for golf or personal revelation.

Sulky titles are a particular mistake – in 2008 Andy Murray was unwise to go with Hitting Back, and retitled the paperback Coming Of Age. But nothing could be done for Ashley Cole and My Defence, which established Cheryl Cole’s faithless other half as ‘Cashley’ Cole thanks to the fantastically ill-advised anecdote in which he described Arsenal’s offer of £55,000 a week as “taking the piss”.

A selection of Kate’s favourite sports autobiographies

But there are more great sports books, especially in the biography section, than you might think. They prove that what matters is the story, and the telling of it. Among the very best is Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino.

Described by one reviewer as “Angela’s Ashes with half-time oranges”, it is packed with confessional secrets, not least that the striker who played 88 times for Ireland was not Irish.

Full Time was ghosted by Paul Kimmage, who remarkably had already produced another all-time classic with his own autobiography. Long before Armstrong was heard of, Kimmage laid bare the unlovely truths about cycling in Rough Ride.

Having turned professional in 1986, Kimmage discovered life at the top wasn’t about desire or dedication but defeat, exhaustion – and drugs, just to get you to that day’s race finish and the next day’s start line.

America’s greatest

Barely heard of here, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is commonly regarded in the United States as the greatest sports book of all time. His diary of the 1969 season as pitcher with baseball’s Seattle Pilots exposed the petty jealousies, tomcatting, drunkenness and drug-taking which were routine for the whole squad, including Bouton himself.

Almost everyone in baseball condemned the book, but fans loved it, and critics saw it as a landmark in American culture. Time Magazine has Ball Four as one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books ever published.

My own all-time favourite? Honourable mention to Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, the racehorse which became an American legend as the nation emerged from the Depression; Andre Agassi’s jaw-dropping Open, with its tales of wigs and crystal meth and his hatred of tennis; and Garry Nelson’s Left Foot In The Grave, on the year he became player-coach at deeply unglamorous Torquay United.

But for me the best is King of the World, the story of Muhammad Ali’s rise and self-creation, by the Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick. It begins with Floyd Paterson’s fight against Sonny Liston, giving its context in the sociological backdrop of 1962.

Ali enters as Cassius Clay, with his own fight against Liston, going all the way through to 1967 and his refusal of the Vietnam draft. It is so much more than a sports book.

The story, and its telling… the same as any book – these are what make a sports biography great.