Sports autobiographies: the good, the bad and the ugly

In this generation, boxing great Mohammed Ali’s ‘The Greatest’ set the pace with its reliving of some of the most incredible fights in the history of the sport

bikram

Bikram Vohra | October 20, 2014



Is it guts and glory or plain cowardice? The jury will stay out on this issue for a long time and we may never get a unanimous verdict. But the post retirement ‘kiss and tell’ publishing option in sport has now become the norm. Two books hit the market this week. Former Manchester United captain and assistant manager of Aston Villa Roy Keane brought out his second tour de force. The first one tends to leave one feeling you are on a parade ground on a rainy morning in Aldershot with a rucksack on your back set for a twenty mile slog and Roy is the surly Sarge. One review of the second one says it is a lot more grounded and restrained than the endless rant of the first effort but since I haven’t read it I cannot compare. The good part here is supposedly the detailed rendition of his tenure at Manchester United and a recall of the best of times.

Pipping him on the bestseller list is Kevin Pieterson, English cricket’s prodigal son who never really returns and he clearly intends to whip the coffee even if it has gone cold. Kevin lavishly praises Rahul Dravid (okay, up go the Indian sales) but otherwise he largely defends himself against all charges linked to his wet blanket image in the English dressing room.

It is still seen as being immensely readable because it has enough scandal and eyebrow raising. South Africa’s Graeme Smith’s recent endorsement of the contents, though, will certainly help the sales graph. 

So, do these autobiographies record sports history accurately through its shining lights or are they just money-spinning con games spurred by a desire to get even, settle scores with a lance tipped in malice or even more simply, a last snatch at a fading limelight, a strident scream for some attention before anonymity comes riding in.  It is all this in the mix but often enough, they get it wrong, very wrong.

Most of these exercises collapse after a couple of weeks of attention and then gather dust in libraries. Even when the NBA’s Dennis Rodman tried to shock folks by posing provocatively on the cover of ‘Bad as I wanna be’ like a male Lady Godiva on a motorbike it did not do much for the turgid style of the effort. Not all these efforts have been poor. In fact, two tennis players most unlikely to have scored literary aces were John McEnroe with ‘Serious’ and Andre Agassi with ‘Open’ whose happily loping writing styles and their wit gave insight not just into the hi voltage world of tennis at the top but made them come off as real people.

In this generation, boxing great Mohammed Ali’s ‘The Greatest’ set the pace with its reliving of some of the most incredible fights in the history of the sport. Sometimes, these efforts, mostly ghostwritten, break their spines because they are dull or dishonest or just plain incapable of delivering. I remember Freddie Flintoff’s ‘Being Freddie’ and though I bought it at Heathrow it just would not fly because it was an essay. By the same token Greg Norman in the book of the same name spent very little wordage on the game but seemed more interested in ‘corporatespeak.’ He lost that round by several strokes.

Lance Armstrong was fortunate to have had his book, ‘It’s not about the bike’ published long before the drug scandal or else that title would have spiked him for sure.

You ever get a chance, read two really riveting sports oriented bestsellers. Cricket umpire Dickie Bird’s Autobiography (rather unimaginatively titled) is a delight and, for me, a tad more because he has referred in it to an article I wrote. But he captures life from behind the wicket and is funny and irreverent without being crass.

The other book you must grab for much the same reasons is Mike Atherton’s ‘Opening Up.’ Now, a reputed columnist himself, he wrote the book without professional help and made it a really good read. No sucker punches, no snide comments and innuendo, just a happy and friendly exercise. 

Because sports heroes are a niche audience, within a niche, the discipline they represent has a limited readership. You need to be a hero of huge proportions. And you need to have a story to tell. And tell it with integrity, honesty and more than a touch of humour and self-deprecation. It is a tough formula and not easy to achieve. You don’t get it right the ‘stands’ will be empty.

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