Sports Literature has gotten a bad rap in the past, and we think that's super-unfair. Sure, many of the athlete's memoirs aren't Henry James-level cerebral, and they're not discussing serious topics like nuclear warfare strategy or anything.
But they are covering hugely important topics that can apply to just about everyone.
Sports illuminate and transform a society. Hey: the original ancient Games were the ultimate expression of what their culture valued…and those Greeks weren't slouches when it came to getting their brainpans all riled up. Ever heard of Aristotle?
Sports can change lives, affect politics, and shape culture in vast and strangely intangible ways. The Olympics, being the ultimate sporting event, does all these things on a massive scale.
So why do athletes' memoirs get a bad rap? Well, for several reasons…but mostly because of intellectual snobbery. As one popular critic wrote,
Times and opinions change, but I continue to feel a strong twinge of reflexive distrust of commonplace encomia to the "meaning" or the "significance" of sports offered by sports writers and TV commentators and the like. I feel this way because for me meaning and significance are the province of literature, and I experience a certain territorial jealousy when people insist that sports have important things to tell us about "Life" or some other equally abstract notion.
What sort of things? Usually some variation of the following: how groups of plucky, determined underdogs triumph over seemingly invincible adversaries; how self-interested individuals come to appreciate teamwork over individual accomplishment; how success requires exercising extraordinary discipline in the face of the constant temptation to take it easy or relax. (Source)
We hate to admit, we've scoffed at some of the same things. The over-production of the emotional "sob stories" that make up the majority of the personal coverage for Olympic athletes can be eye-rollingly bad.
But the truth is, after reading thirteen books about Olympic athletes, we've drunk the Kool-Aid when it comes to reading success stories. And, as it turns out, the Kool-Aid is both deliciously refreshing and totally inspiring.
We can find ways to relate to someone who we have very little in common with. We can discover an appreciation for what it really takes to compete on a world stage. Or we can simply gain vicarious pleasure and pride by following a particular athlete all the way to the top. You don't have to be totally into diving to appreciate Louganis's sweet nature and honest reflections. You don't have to know the ins-and-outs of track and field to admire Lopez Lomong for everything he's accomplished after surviving tragedy after tragedy.
And maybe, just maybe, you'll find a love for a sport that you might've lost somewhere along the way.