‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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‘Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women’ by Roseanne Montillo (2017)

Fire on the Track tells the story of Betty Robinson, the first ever women’s gold medalist athletics at the Olympic games, and some of her fellow pioneering female Olympians.  Robinson won gold in the 100m sprint in Amsterdam in 1928 at the age of just 16, in only her 3rd ever race at the distance, and 4th race at any distance.

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The first women participated in the Olympic games in Paris in 1900, and even then they were only allowed to participate in “safe” events like lawn tennis and golf. The 1928 games was the first Olympics that women were allowed to compete in the track and field events. Many feared that women participating in track and field events would either deem them unattractive to men or actually turn them into men so its inclusion was still heavily disputed among officials.  Coverage of the events, especially the 800m, focussed heavily on the toil the race took on the athletes rather than the race itself.

As well as Betty Robinson there are several other prevalent female track athletes covered. These names included: Polish-American Stella Walsh, Texan Babe Didrikson, the first African-American female to compete in the Olympics, Tidye Pickett, and young Helen Stephens.

Overall I found the story quite interesting but the writing style wasn’t my cup of tea.  It was written with an overly novelistic flair and at times I felt the author presumed too much as to what the inner thoughts of the various protagonists were.  It felt like a cross between biography and novel which always feels problematic to me as it blurs the line between fact and possible fiction.  If you approach the book as a fictionalized retelling it might be more palatable.  While the story was gripping, I ultimately struggled to finish it due to the style.

As I read this book, it really struck me how few of the sports books I’ve read relate to women’s sport.  I’m struggling to think of any others that I have actually read – and I’ve read a lot!  I’ve read great sports books written by women – none more so than Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – and books about how sportsmen mistreat women – like the very interesting Night Games by Anna Krien – but very little about women athletes or players.   It’s been an interesting realisation for me and I’d appreciate any recommendations for good sports books about women athletes that I have overlooked.

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‘Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend’ edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (1997)

“Virtually his entire playing career – over twenty years – was spent not just at the top, but at the very top of his profession.  He never stepped down from that summit.  And whatever he touched in the footballing world turned to gold”. 

Ferenc Puskas sits alongside Alfredo di Stefano in being widely regarded as the best player in the pre-Pele football era.   His achievements were remarkable – as well as being a top player right up to his 40th birthday, he played in two of the most famous (non-World Cup) matches ever to take place on British soil, captained arguably the greatest international football team never to win a World Cup (Cruyff might have disagreed) and even coached Panathinaikos to the European Cup final. Add in 83 goals in 84 internationals, an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the FIFA Goal of the Season award is named after him, and you get some sense of his accomplishments. puskas 1

Puskas on Puskas is an oral history of Puskas’ career, told mainly in his own words.  Taylor and Jamrich supplement Puskas’ own memories with those of his contemporaries – players, coaches, administrators, and journalists.  These reflections are supplemented by the editors providing an overview of the times Puskas lived and played in.  It’s an interesting and informative approach to telling the story of Puskas, the Golden Squad and Hungary under Communist rule.

Puskas comes across as a lively, charming and determined figure. Away from football Puskas was a master smuggler, political rebel and not afraid to speak his mind. On the field he was not just a world-class player but also a charismatic leader, a committed team-mate and a tactical innovator.

Puskas starred in some of the most famous matches in history beginning with the England-Hungary 6-3 match of 1953 that is often (wrongly) portrayed as England’s first ever defeat on home soil (that honour goes to Ireland following a 2-0 win in 1949).  He also played in the controversial 1954 World Cup final (the so-called Miracle of Berne) where West Germany improbably inflicted the only defeat Hungary would suffer over a 6 year period with some help from the British ref and linesman.  If that wasn’t enough for one man, he scored 4 goals in the famous 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, which saw Real Madrid beat Eintract Frankfurt 7-3 to win their 5th straight European Cup.

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The book, brings to life not only the achievements of the players but also the tactical innovations of the Hungarian team and the challenges of the totalitarian regime that controlled the country.  Puskas recognised and exploited the power he had, certainly before the 1954 World Cup, in a team which the Communist authorities were eager to use to demonstrate the superiority of the “Socialist Man”

There a few hints that we don’t see every side of the man – certainly some of the British players interviewed suggest he may have had a wandering eye.  But the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography – rather is an oral history told mostly in the great man’s own words.

What makes the book a real treasure is the lack of other English language comprehensive books on Puskas – Taylor and Jamrich did a superb job in capturing the great man’s memories and using them to pull together an entertaining, informative book that is a fantastic read.

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And here’s 12 I prepared earlier

Before starting this blog, I very occasionally reviewed books on Goodreads.  This post captures 12 long ago, and in many cases forgotten, musings on a wide selection of sports books.  Some of these are in the re-read pile and will get a fuller, updated review when I get to enjoy them again.  These 12 cover a range of topics including: Boxing’s 4 Kings, Brazilian and German football, Irish cycling and drugs in sport.

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1) ‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’ by James Lawton

A Ringside Affair is a love letter to boxing from one of the UK’s great sportswriters. Each chapter covers one of the great fights or fighters that Lawton had the immense pleasure of witnessing throughout his career. It’s clear that the era of the Four Kings
(Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran) stands out as the golden age of the title, but it’s the career of Iron Mike Tyson which clearly shines through in the book. Lawton’s admiration for young Tyson’s talent is only topped by his disappointment at the Tyson’s eventual troubles and crimes.

Lawton’s accounts really bring the fights to life as well as placing them clearly in their time and place. His passion and love for the sport shines through. Its a work of remembrance and of celebration as Lawton reflects on his career.

For all fight fans the book is a fantastic summary of 30 years of top level boxing. It’s excellently written and will make you want to pull out the you tube videos and track down the great boxing books.  I highly recommend it.

2) ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ by Dave Hannigan

An entertaining and in-depth look at Ali’s last fight and the sad spectacle it was. The book is best enjoyed by someone well versed in Ali’s life story – it paints some characters a bit too thinly for anyone coming to Ali;s story without a reasonable knowledge of the cast of characters that surrounded the Champ.

Hannigan paints a picture of an Ali who is his own worst enemy.  It is apparent that there is no is villain guiding Ali to fight one last time. It really appears to be Ali himself and his own desire for attention and love that motivates him to take one more totally unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

Like all Hannigan’s work, it’s an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the library of Ali books.

3) ‘The Fall of the House of Fifa: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer’ by David Conn

I greatly enjoyed this book on FIFA’s troubled history. Its extensively researched and well written. As a follower of David’s writing in the Guardian the book lives up to expectations.

Its a sad reminder of the scale of corruption and the breath of individuals involved. Blatter emerges as not quite the villain but rather the enabler and master politician. There is plenty of new material even for those following FIFA closely, especially a fascinating interview with a post retirement Blatter.

The only criticism is that it is a bit too detailed at times. Sometimes the narrative could be shortened and there is a bit of repetition at times.

All in all its a highly recommend for anyone interest in football politics or just good journalism.

4) ‘Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup’ by Fernando Duarte

Very enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

One of many books to come out in the lead up to the Brazil World Cup, Durate captured a lessor seen angle of the 5 times champions.   Considering that the worst defeat of all was yet to come – who will ever forget that 7 – 1 – its a timely book and one that will remain relevant as Brazil try to rise again in Russia.

The writer is also a very entertaining journalist and great as a guest on football podcasts.

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5) ‘Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World’ by Raphael Honigstein

A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a confusing manner.   A good companion piece to ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ by Ulrich Hesse to complete the picture of how the world champions became the world champions.

6)’Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga’ by Ronald Reng

Ronald Reng is the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke.

His second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld.

Reng uses Hoher’s story to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.

All round an enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read.  The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

7) ‘Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’ by Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin is modern footballer’s great chronicler.  He examines the less beautiful side of English football shining a light on the real life experiences of those who live and breath the game.  Living on the Volcano focuses on the stresses of football management – showing the cost, the emotion and the real lived experience of managers at almost every level of the game.  It is an interesting and enjoyable read that offers a unique perspective of the job we all love to try on a computer game.

The book does suffer from Calvin at times being a bit too close to some of the subjects.  Its hard not to get the sense that he lets the fact he grows to like many of his interviewees/subjects as people get in the way of his objectivity as a football journalist.

8) ‘The Nowhere Men’ by Michael Calvin

Before data, analytics and youtube, talent needed to be scouted. Calvin’s book offers a fascinating insight into the enclosed world of football scouts in the UK

It chronicles a profession teetering on the edge – slowly being replaced by technology (and those who use it) yet a profession that continues to prove that data alone can’t tell you everything.

Above all, the love of football some of the scouts who work for mileage only is amazing, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.

roche   Race   Running with Fire   Nike

9) ‘Born to Ride’ by Stephen Roche

Very interesting and enjoyable book. A chronicle of a time when Irish cyclists ruled the world.  Roche really was some rider had an incredible career and I wish I had been older in 1987 to have been swept up in the Roche/Kelly era.  Roche’s book is well worth a read for any cycling fan.

As with all cycling books, the issue of drugs hangs over every story like a bad smell.  Roche does at least address the drugs controversy which emerged after he retired.  His position is not entirely convincing and it is very hard not to believe his accusers.  Roche may have been part of the problem, and is definitely not willing to be part of the solution, but his achievements should not be underesimated.  If he was clean, its doubtful there has ever been a greater Irish sportsman.

Hunger by Sean Kelly is a very good companion book to give Kelly’s perspective of days that Irish cycling will never see again.

10) ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ by Richard Moore

Moore is better known as a cycling journalist and writer.  Here, he moves away from cycling to the other sport dominated by drugs.  He crafts the story of the 1988 Olympic 100m final where Ben Johnson smashed the world record then dramatically failed a drug test.  Will there ever be another Olympic final where so many competitors had their legacies tarnished as the testers caught up with the cheats?

The book provides an in-depth look at Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis and both of their journey’s to Seoul.  Johnson’s assertion that, while he was on lots of drugs, he never actually took the drug that the test found creates a bizarre and intriguing story.

It is well written, well researched and entertaining.  It provides an interesting look at drugs in sport in general – although Moore’s eagerness to believe in Team Sky over the years totally unfairly taints his comments on drugs in sport in my eyes.   Highly recommend.

11) ‘Running with Fire: The True Story of Harold Abrahams’ by Manterrk Ryan 

Very enjoyable biography of the 100m Olympic gold medalist and legend of athletics officialdom. Charts the prejudice he faced for being Jewish, his fantastic athletic career and even more successful (and interesting) administration career after he retired.

A must read for any fans of Chariots of Fire.

12) ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight.

Every long lasting company needs its origin myth.  What is unusual is the founder telling his story so long after the fact. Shoe Dog is both a sports book and a business book.  It is much better than I would have expected.

Knight tells the story of the founding of Nike and its early years before it broke into the big time.  It ticks the usual boxes of near disaster, dramatic recovery and eventually incredible growth.

What becomes clear is that for Knight, the early years are where is heart remains. It is a loving reflection on the days before he became a bazillionaire and a love letter to Steve Prefontaine.

I would have liked it to go a little further and look at the signing of Jordan and the groundbreaking nature of that change for Nike and for sport.

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore is a great companion piece to round out the story of the technical genius that combined with Knight’s business brain to change the sporting world.