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Five Great Sports Novels

Even though 2017 hasn’t featured an Olympic games, a World Cup, or even a measly Rugby World Cup, it’s still been a great summer for sport. Roger Federer won a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon victory, the British and Irish Lions fought the All Blacks to a hardwon draw and Chris Froome definitively proved that he is Not Human with a third successive Tour de France title.

Sure, the football season starts soon, and the baseball post-season after that—don’t get me wrong, I’ll be watching—but there’s nothing quite like a big summer tournament. If you can’t wait until Summer 2018 to get your next big sporting fix, this reading list will tide you over. In these novels, you’ll find all the thrilling-yet-innocent drama of the big sporting clash, but you’ll also find the darker dramas that drive top athletes and trainers, the hopes and dreams that bind fans forever to their favourite team and all the love, fear, passion and glory that make the grassroots of sport so hardy.

The Art of Fielding

Harbach, one of the editors at the New York literary journal n+1, worked on his debut novel for ten years. The effort paid off when The Art of Fielding was sold at auction for a whopping $650,000.

Our hero, Henry Skrimshander, is a precociously talented young shortstop (for non-aficionados, the shortstop is the most important fielder in a baseball team). When he is scouted at an amateur game by the captain of Westish College’s team, Skrimshander enrols on a sports scholarship and becomes the lynchpin of the college’s most successful season ever—while also coming to terms with the privilege of an expensive education he neither dreamed he would have nor particularly wanted.

Just as things are coming together for Skrimshander, he fluffs a routine throw so badly that it hospitalises his roommate—and from that moment on, the baseball prodigy can’t seem to play at all.

Much of the excitement of baseball lies in the pressure the sport places on its players. One mistake can easily cost a game, and there are many examples of real-life players who have cracked and lost their touch the way Skrimshander does. Here, Harbach has made the knife edge of baseball a metaphor for the precariousness of being talented but not wealthy, the vulnerability of the self-respect that comes with success and position, and the fleetingness of youth itself.

The Sport of Kings

Horse racing is a unique sport in lots of ways, but first and foremost it’s the only major sport whose athletes are not only trained to compete, but bred. Anyone involved in racing can’t help but give a lot of thought to ancestry and lineage—and the characters in C.E. Morgan’s epic novel are no exception.

Henry Forge can trace his descent from Kentucky’s earliest European settlers, but as a young man he defiantly broke with family tradition: where his father had raised crops, Henry has always wanted to breed horses. He’s determined to make it a new family tradition, and his daughter Henrietta doesn’t get a say in the matter.

But history and lineage are not just the things you’re proud of. When the Forges hire Allmon Shaughnessy—an African American and an ex-convict—to be the new groom to their wilful filly Hellmouth, all three of them must acknowledge the darker heritage of the American South.

C.E. Morgan is from Kentucky, the home of American horseracing, and she writes with an insider’s sympathy. She’s also a remarkable talent who may have written, in The Sport of Kings, the first Great American Novel of this century.

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The Damned Utd

Some novels are overshadowed by their film adaptation, and some novels are overshadowed by the controversy they generate—but it’s a very unfortunate novel which suffers both. Such has been the fate of The Damned Utd.

It narrates the real events of English football manager Brian Clough’s 44-day tenure at the helm of Leeds United (author Peace’s own team is Huddersfield Town, United’s bitter rivals). Clough, regarded by many as a genius, emerges from Peace’s novel as a complex anti-hero. He is vengeful, self-destructive, vain, tortured and charismatic. He is also a man striving for his idiosyncratic ideals in a corrupt world.

Michael Sheen’s career-making performance as Clough in the movie adaptation, and the lawsuit by former Leeds player Johnny Giles which forced Peace’s publisher to remove certain passages—well, let them be damned. The Times called The Damned Utd ‘the best novel ever written about sport,’ and you might well find you agree.

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The fight

There are some sporting stories which reach so far beyond sport that they become history. ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ is one of them. In 1974 Muhammad Ali was already a boxing icon, but he had been suspended for three years over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and his comeback attempt to regain the heavyweight title from Joe Frasier had ended in ignominious defeat.

While Ali was still fighting for the right to make another attempt on the title, the intimidatingly heavy-hitting George Foreman appeared on the scene. He seized the title from Frasier and when Ali challenged him, an easy Foreman victory was predicted by just about everyone—except Ali.

What transformed an epic sporting clash into an event of global significance was the decision—by an up-and-coming promoter named Don King—to stage the fight in Kinshasa, the capital city of military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The fast-talking Muslim Ali and the taciturn-to-the-point-of-aloof Foreman became symbols for American power and Black identity in the U.S. and Africa. It was the fight that made Ali a legend.

Norman Mailer was there at the ringside, and he captures the fight and its long buildup in the prose that made him the foremost American journalist of his generation. The account that emerges is a remarkable synthesis: part novel, part historical document, part sports journalism and part meditation on what it means to witness sporting history.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is the title story of this seminal collection, another literary masterpiece unfairly overshadowed by its filmic adaptation.

No-one writes about the working-class experience as deftly as Sillitoe: his Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains the benchmark for British working-class fiction. In ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,’ Sillitoe finds in running an analogue for the grinding and even self-destructive effort necessary for young working-class people to resist the relentless machinery of oppression.

A young boy from Nottingham, Smith, falls into petty crime and ends up in borstal. There he discovers a talent for distance running that makes his days in borstal a little easier, but when the authorities decide to use his talent to stage a PR coup, Smith takes a stand.


I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.