‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.

The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.

The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.

Losers is published August 18 2020

‘State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation’ by Melissa Isaacson (2019)

As a kid, my entire week would be determined by how my soccer team did on Saturday. I lived for Limerick Schoolboy football . I still list being named the best player in my league at under-10 level as one of the top 5 moments of my life! I’m fully on board with the significance of school age sports!

There are some superb accounts of particular seasons of underage sports teams – The Miracle of St Anthony and Friday Night Lights remain two of my favourite books. Very few such books either cover women’s sports or offer a first person account of a writer’s own teenage sports career. State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation is Melissa Isaacson’s account of her high school basketball team – the 1979 Illinois State Championship winning Niles West High School team

Girl’s high school sport had only just started in the area as US law (Title IX) requiring equal treatment of girls in all school activity had passed 3 years previously. Isaacson’s compelling first-person account of a group of high school girls who came together to win a State championship really captures the time and place of that new dawn in women’s sport in the USA. It touches on gender discrimination, the struggle for equality and the particular challenges for girls discovering their athletic identity.

State is at its core a love-letter to team sports. It captures the hard work, the joy, the pain and the friendship that comes with playing for a team at a time in your life where it can matter more than anything. The book paints a vivid picture of the girls and their coaches. Isaacson draws the reader in and gives a real sense of who these people are and in particular what basketball meant to them. The writing puts you in the moment. At times the book gives a little bit too much on-court detail, but Isaacson’s fluid writing style ensures it never feels bogged down.

Isaacson became an award-winning sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covering the Chicago Bulls during their championship years. Many will have seen her as a talking head on the recent The Last Stand documentary. Isaacson spent years writing this story and this level of detail, attention and love, together with her quality in as a writer is clearly apparent in the book.

‘What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen’ by Kate Fagan (2017)

Madison Holleran, a promising young American athlete and student, died by suicide in January 2014.  In What Made Maddy Run, Kate Fagan attempts to shed light on why a beautiful, bright and athletic girl seemingly with the world at her fingertips would ultimately take such tragic action.

Sport was a huge part of Madison’s life and her identity.  She excelled at soccer and athletics.  Her decision to focus on athletics and her anxiety about wanting to quit both played major roles in her unhappiness. Her whole identity was wrapped up in her classification as an athlete

Fagan does a lot of deep diving into possible factors leading to Madison’s suicide, from mental illness to the enormous amount of pressure that student athletes endure.  Social media and the impact on users emotional development is suggested as a potential factor in Madison’s difficulties. 

The book began life as a magazine article.  When articles get extended into full length books they can often suffer from a feeling that some of the new material is filler.  I recently read The Coddling of the American Mind about the need to expose kids like Madison to challenges suffers from the same problem of extending insightful shorter work into a longer from book.

At times the overly personal style can be grating as can the constant switching of names from Madison to Maddy and back.  However, it’s clear that Fagan was deeply affected by this story and built a strong relationship with Madison’s family.   Overall, the book works  very well in giving the read a strong sense of who Madison was, the issues she dealt with and the impact she had on those around her.

The book ultimately isn’t about sport.  It’s about the life of a young sportswoman ended tragically early and the lessons that we can learn from Madison.  It’s a difficult read but an important book.

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‘Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking Of Elite Gymnasts And Figure Skaters’ by Joan Ryan (1996)

My first kid is due to be born in 10 weeks time.  Amid the busyness of getting the house ready, buying all the supplies and taking anti-natal classes, I’ve thinking a lot about sharing my love of sport, and of sports books of course, with my kid.

Sport was such a big part of my childhood and so many of friendships and memories are tied up with playing football in particular.   I want to expose them to any many sports and opportunities as I can and hope they find something that excites them as much as schoolboy soccer did for me.

We (and by we, I mean my wife) decided that we wouldn’t find out the sex of our kid in advance.  However, as I daydream about the future, I find myself naturally thinking about playing sport with my son, cheering or coaching his teams.  My brain keeps making the connection of sport with a boy – despite the obvious fact that I shouldn’t be treating a daughter any differently when it comes to exposing them sport.

Recognising my own instinctive bias, I’ve wanted to read more about women’s and girl’s sport.  I’ve tried to take more interest in women’s sport – and it’s been a bumper year for Irish women and historic sporting achievements – and to imagine bringing my daughter to play football and watch football – both men’s and women’s.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, a book that often appears on list of greatest ever sports books.  The book is a detailed behind the scenes look at the world of elite female gymnastics and ice skating.   It is the story of the power of dreams and ambition – and how these forces can lead parents to overlook abusive or damaging behaviour by coaches, themselves and the girls they should be protecting.

The book tells the stories of many well known and less known gymnasts and skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan, Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Betty Okino.  For every success story, the book points to many more tragic stories.  It also focuses heavily on the brutal coaching regime of Bela Karolyi.

Ryan paints a shocking picture of young girls dedicating their whole lives and risking their physical and mental health for the slim chance of glory at the Olympics.  Ryan interviewed dozens of athletes, family, and coaches.  Much of the comments from parents whose kids have since retired are full of regret, shame and remorse while some only regret the outcome (failure) and not the process they imposed on their child.

At its heart, the book calls for reflection on the merits of a win at all costs mentally.  It asks readers to reflect on the physical and mental price paid by countless girls and young women.   Personally, I was shocked at the toll the sport had on the elite competitors – delaying growth, permanent injuries and serious eating disorders seemed to have been normal, almost expected, side-effects of their training.

The book is full of villains – coaches, parents and federations who failed totally in thier duty of care.  One thing that emerges clearly however  is the sheer bravery of those girls who make it anywhere near elite level.  The commitment, dedication and effort needed is truly remarkable.

Written over 20 years ago, the book seems sadly still relevant today.  A quick online search reveals countless stories suggesting little has changed.  The heart-breaking testimonies that led to conviction of Larry Nassar for horrific offences against young gymnasts paint a picture even more gruesome than the one portrayed by Ryan in the book.

As a soon to be parent, the book stands out to me as a warning not to live vicariously through your child and to always remember that life is for living, not for ‘winning’. I want my kid to love sport but, in the unlikely event they show much more talent than I have, I’ll be sure to never push them to achieve my dreams rather than let them figure out their own.

After reading this, I found myself instinctively picking up Friday Night Lights for a reread (blog post coming).  Little Girls In Pretty Boxes is every bit as powerful, compelling and moving as that Texas football classic.

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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.

fire track

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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