These words from Theodore Roosevelt’s motivational speech “Citizenship In A Republic” were delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910. Fitting now, perhaps, as we mourn a man who spent his career “in the arena…marred by dust and sweat and blood”. Since the heavyweight champion died last Friday aged 74, sports writers have polished their prose in praise of his achievements and ability. By common consent, the world over, he has been hailed as one of the greatest heavyweights, even the greatest, of all time. Otherwise, he was universally acknowledged as the most charismatic and politically significant individual ever to have entered the ring.
And today the world is invited to the funeral of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, as he is laid to his final resting place in Louisville, Kentucky.
Ali sayings have filled the airwaves all week, from the poetic, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” to the inspirational “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” and his mantra, “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”
Whilst Ali’s aptitude for a turn of phrase may rightly be lauded, he is probably going to be remembered more for his sporting prowess than his literary. There are others likely to get this honour. Like Pulitzer prize-winning author Norman Mailer for The Fight. His account of the 1975 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (known as the “rumble in the jungle”). Mailer used gentle, observational humility to record one of the single biggest sporting events of the Twentieth Century, turning the story into an understated discourse on race relations, geopolitics, and the soul of the fighter.
“Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying day. Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. . . . He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news. . . .”
Sports writing seems to bring out the best in prose (read the broadsheet’s sports columns and/or read Simon Barnes, you will be impressed). Some think this is because of the inherent sense of drama in sports and because of the reverence for our sporting heroes (politicians or other mortals just don’t seem to bring out the same praise, do they?) Often what comes through the words is philosophical, soulful, god-like. Here’s a list of some of the best examples.
But American writers have always taken sports seriously. Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac all worked as sports journalists. (Hemingway was paid a staggering $30,000 from Sports Illustrated for a 2,000-word piece on bullfighting!) And US Presidents, wise to the cultural capital to be gained as sports fans are often seen at major events. Some though, appear more genuine than others; Ronald Reagan called baseball games in a former life as a radio announcer.
Whilst George Bush might really be the sports fanatic Stateside.
“He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day.”
Andrew Card, chief of staff of former US president George W Bush
Former President George Bush at the Invictus Games, 2016. (Source: invictusgames.org)
But it’s taken a while for Britain and Europe sporting literature to catch up. Considered naff and not worth serious contemplation by writers, Britons efforts at sport literature, until the 1990s ,were mostly were simple-minded sportsmen’s autobiographies, or breathless accounts of long-dead games, or lovely light prose (usually on cricket) by the likes of AG Macdonell.
But everything apparently changed here because of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992). “A completely original book, it examines the apparently unremarkable experience of being a football fan. It uses football to illuminate a man’s life, and is also a hilarious social history of Britain from the 1960s to the 1990s. In part, the book was inspired by hours of reading fanzines in Sportspages. “Publishers may have refused to accept that there was such a beast as the literate football fan,” Hornby wrote later, “but there were always hundreds of them in Caxton Walk, so I knew who I was writing for.”” (Simon Kuper, FT)
And ever since the genre has mushroomed with cricket, football and boxing dominating the sports under examination. Now seemingly every sportsman has now “written” their biography from the view at the top by Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Ian Botham to a blurring of fictions in Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. Bookshop and library shelves are seemingly brimming with this stuff now.
But like the sport offering on TV, writing about it is most definitely a man’s world. A quick look at the lists of past winners of the the 2 main annual prizes for sportswriting; William Hill Sports Book of the Year and Cross Sports Book Award and you will find few very women here. Why is this?
Despite the huge demand for sports writing across a range of media platforms – web, radio, tv, press – there is a real lack of women’s voices. (In one UK research survey just 3% of bylines were female 2012-2013, including during the London Olympics period and it’s no better in the US.)
And for those women who do want to forge a career in sports writing (because they genuinely love the job and have the knowledge) many have to battle against discrimination and outright sexism. In April the creators behind #MoreThanMean used social media to raise awareness of online bullying of women in sports. Here men read other people’s tweets aimed at sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro to their faces.
It’s disturbing viewing;
So many men still think sport is a male domain (women can have their soaps). I can tackle this narrow-mindedness on a small scale, as a mother of boys and girls this absurd gender divide won’t wash in my house (they all enjoy a varied range of activities, they all won’t to win at every game and the 8 year old girls can’t wait to join the village cricket team with their brothers). But my family can’t change the view of sporting corporations much.
This has to come from top down, from women like Alison Kervin, the first female sports editor of a UK national newspaper, appointed in 2013 at the Mail on Sunday. But more could be done; more top coaching positions and sports management jobs also need to be won by women.
And women need the confidence of their own voice in sport, rather than feel they need to ape men (listen to some of the commentary, especially football; this often sounds like manspeak in a female mouth).
But we know what’s really going to make a difference, don’t we? When films and TV series and novels are written about real life female sporting heroines – like they were for Ali. When a woman is known just for her amazing sporting ability.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Mohammed Ali earnt his global admiration. But, I wonder, how long will it be before a woman is revered like Ali and allowed in the arena too?
Listen: Cricket Classics and the Bicycle Book. Anthony Bateman, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Cricket, discusses the history and literature of the game with Guardian cricket writer Andy Bull; meanwhile Bella Bathurst, author of The Bicycle Book, goes riding with Claire Armitstead
Bend It Like Beckham (2002, Kiera Knightley) The daughter of orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents’ traditionalism and joins a football team
When We Were Kings (1996) A documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali. Great soundtrack from The Fugees
A League of Their Own: The Impossibility of the Female Sports Hero. (2013, Katharina Bonzel) Essay on the real reasons why women don’t dominate US sports – because it would threaten national stabilty.