What Makes a Good Sports Story?

I’ve been hopping around in The Only Game in Town: The New Yorker Book of Sports Writing, edited by David Remnick.

It’s the second sports book I’ve picked up, after an unskillfully written but completely engrossing book on ultra-long-distance cycling.

To my knowledge, before two months ago I have never so much as cracked open a book-length work about sports or games.

But now I’m thinking about doing a little sports writing of my own. So I am reading this compendium in hopes of trying to figure out what makes sports writing interesting, if and when it is interesting. Why is sports a compelling topic? How do writers approach it?

So far, I have read six pieces. Some guy on open-water surfing off San Fransicso’s Ocean Beach. A profile of marathon swimmer Lynn Cox. A piece by Malcolm Gladwell about why athletes fail. A layered piece by Adam Gopnik about an influential art-history teacher of his, who later coached his eight-year-old son’s football team while dying of cancer. A piece by Nancy Franklin about ping-pong. Haruki Murakami’s personal essay about writing and running.

My favorites were the surfing piece, the Lynn Cox profile, and Gopnik’s essay—which it almost seems like a stretch to call sports-writing, but let’s let it stand.

The only one I didn’t especially care for was Gladwell’s.

Franklin and Murakami were pretty fun but didn’t engage me as much as the top three.

The piece on Lynn Cox and Murakami’s essay were probably the simplest in form.

Lynn Cox. A winning formula for a sports story, I’m starting to think. Starts out with jaw-droppingly amazing anecdote you’ve never heard before. (Thirty-year-old Cox swimming, during the Cold War, from an Alaskan island to an island in the USSR, as a gesture of peace. Wearing a rectal thermometer. Sans wetsuit. With three doctors in a leaky umiak. To a tea-party on an icy beach on the other side. I mean, wow.) Pulls back to briefly touch on the history of long-distance swimming, then on the physical and mental characteristics of those who do it. Then the reporter meets Cox, gives her life history, describes her development as a swimmer (several other great and shocking anecdotes there), the people who made a difference, a bit about her life now (but nothing too prying, actually), how she got the whole swimming-for-peace idea, which she’s pursued in other places too. You get the impression they hung out together for a few days in SoCal. They swam together in the ocean. The piece ends with some vague meditations about how scary open-water swimming is and how it’s quite amazing that she does it so blithely, refusing shark cages, etc.

I think the piece works because the subject matter is extreme. Cox’s quotes are good but not amazing; it’s the record of what she did and the author’s ability to tell that story in a riveting way. Thoughts about the joy Cox takes in swimming—especially as contrasted with the danger and just primal fear of swimming through murky open water—give it a bit of extra depth, but mostly it’s just a simple, straight profile that doesn’t need any bells or whistles to make it great.

Surfing. A more personal piece. Again, it explores a paradox: surfing is cold, dangerous, often lonesome, and insanely difficult to do. It’s expensive, and it isolates you from anyone who does not surf. Yet the people who do it love it. But maybe they also kind of hate it. The author has, himself, been a surfer for twenty years, and he explores the tensions in his own relationship to surfing. He does this in large part by describing a surfing friend/guru of his, this doctor who’s well known in the small (COLD!) surfing community in SF. The doctor character begins by seeming very appealing, but by the end of the piece, he’s become a more ambivalent figure.

The activities described are less extreme than Cox’s gonzo swims, but they’re still pretty fucking intense. (That really comes through when he describes how strong you must be to surf, and how long it takes to master.) Again, that quotient of intensity gives the piece a kind of gee-whiz validity. This is worth writing about simply because it’s incredible!

This essay is very artfully written, like a short story. I don’t think the author conducted any interviews for it; it’s more of a personal remembrance. He describes both the joy and, especially, the suffering of the sport very well. (I also enjoyed the banality of the conversation that surfers have in the water together; cyclists’ conversation is just as banal.) The best moment, for me, is the one where he’s watching the face of a guy who’s just caught a wave and what he sees on that face is not “fun” or pleasure but anguish and fear.

I think it’s fair to say that with this piece and the Cox piece, the central question is, Why do people do this crazy thing??????

Ping-pong. Nancy Franklin’s essay about table tennis is, I guess, a model of how you can write about a sport that does not require superlative skill, strength, or courage.

She opens with a long anecdote about herself playing, and loving, table tennis as a child. Then she hits us with a theme, and it’s the theme that largely makes the piece interesting: the theme is the massive difference in skill level between the casual player and the pro. (She’s talking about ping-pong, but of course you could probably extrapolate that to anything.) She uses humor to explore the theme. She meets and profiles a couple of pro table tennis players, and gives us a mini anthropology of the sport: where it’s played, what kind of equipment people use, controversy caused by changing technology with that equipment. She travels to a high-level tournament. We laugh at how kind of lame and dorky and non-athletic table tennis is—but we also see that her enjoyment of it is totally real, and that the high-level players she talks about are, in fact, geniuses of what they do. We meet a couple old-time pros and a preteen up-and-comer. She ends with basically a joke at her own expense: after all she’s learned, she still suffers the illusion that she says afflicts most basement table tennis players, the illusion that they’re better than they really are and that they could play at the highest levels if only…

It was a fairly fun read, and I liked how she was able to tie together a pretty standard formula (personal context; profile some people; a bit of history; go to an event; another anecdote; and we’re done) with a Bigger Thought or two that you could take away.

Gladwell. Gladwell was talking about skill too, but in a different way. I found the piece a little hairsplitty and pedantic. It also jumped around a lot: various psychological experiments, a tennis star, a golf star, a long segue into JFK junior’s plane crash, all bent to serve his expostulatory purposes. Still, in spite of me, he did make this clear and kind of interesting distinction between two kinds of failure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I remembered them and thought of them later. Basically the piece fits into Gladwell’s interest in achievement. People with insufficiently developed skills, he’s saying, fail because they panic. People who are highly trained fail because they choke, or suddenly lose their instincts and slip back into the mindset of a beginner. Both kinds of failure are brought on by pressure, and they look pretty similar, but…they’re not. He ends with some observations about race and stereotypes and test scores, which seemed kind of tacked-on. I felt he was trying to cram too much material into an article that cleaves the world of failure-under-pressure into this distinction which, I don’t know, seemed maybe too pure and too clean to be really true.

More to the point, though: I think this essay is an example of a sports piece that works, or aspires to work, because it uses examples drawn from sport to illustrate a principle that could be applied to any kind of human endeavor. Therefore it applies to all of us. You get to read about some tennis champion completely choking at Wimbledon (fun! embarrassing!), and you get to think a little bit about yourself.

Murakami. Maybe the simplest piece of all, structurally. Describes how the author started writing and started running. Started writing on a lark at age 30. Eventually got more serious and decided to devote his life to it. Started running around that time, to stay fit. Main point: he writes as he runs, and runs as he writes, which is to say, with great deliberation, and not a lot of skill (says him!) Both activities are a routine, he makes himself do them doggedly, he reminds himself how lucky he is to be able to do them. He takes accomplishments which are not quite as kuh-razy as Lynne Cox’s, e.g., but still pretty impressive (running a couple dozen marathons, publishing many bestselling books), and breaks them down to their constituent parts. He reveals them as the products of both really hard work, and a gentle spirit of ‘if I put my mind to it, could I do that thing?’ He’s not dogmatic about it, but the result is almost something of an inspirational or even self-help tract. ‘Here’s how I did it; when you read about it, you will almost believe that you could do it too.’

Gopnik. Saved for the last because it was the most complex. He’s still an utterly lovely writer, so much so that it’s even hard to hold his sentimental streak against him. He describes his old friend, who is dying of cancer, and how the friend came to coach his son’s and friends’ touch-football team. He pulls back to describe the guy’s academic and intellectual life. He was an insanely gifted teacher and lecturer. Gopnik describes the lessons the guy taught him, lessons I found moving and useful. He said that in order to give great lectures on art history, theory wasn’t necessary. The job was to “break it down and build it back up again.” Or, “describe what they’re looking at,” both the who/what/when/where, and literally what they’re seeing in the slide, and then tell them why it matters—to the artist, to his time, to you. Obviously, an amazing lesson for writing too, though Gopnik is kind enough not to whack us over the head w/ that connection. There’s some great descriptive profiling of this man whom Gopnik obviously knew well and loved. And he makes him sound like a great guy, sharp as a tack, full of life. Then he layers in the little boys’ football team, and shows how the friend puts his pedagogical gift to work there too, breaking it down, as it were. The friend gives Mellon lectures, and then dies. But not before the little boys become respectable football players. And not before Gopnik and his friend manage to take in a rerun of an epic college football game they missed seeing together 20 years previously, and the friend re-defines a famous Hail Mary pass as, in fact, a deliberate play. Which is, of course, a microcosm for the guy’s whole life: what seem like miraculous attainments are, in fact, the products of doggedly hard work. But that work is somehow joyful. You see a guy who has discovered a knack for making the complex, simple. You also see a ‘self-made’ man: Gopnik presents football as some kind of key that turned his friend on, early, to the idea that you can change and sculpt yourself through work. And then he shows, I guess, what happened through hard work beginning to take on a life of its own, so you can give the Mellon Lectures without notes to overflowing rooms of listeners who hang on your every word.

Bottom line: sports as a metaphor for life (like Murakami). Sports as a model for all pedagogy. Sports as Bildungsroman. And also, I guess, sports as bro bonding—it is more latent than called-out, but it is a beautiful aspect of the piece.

In conclusion, at this moment I would put the formula for a long-form sports piece something like this.

A sports story combines some elements of the following:

Stories of specific acts of remarkable skill, strength, or bravery;
Descriptions of the persons performing those acts, and the history of how they came to do so;
Particularly if the acts described are not so incredible that they are able alone to carry the piece: a meditation on what these acts and activities tell us, in some larger context. It might just illuminate the sport, or it might be something we can apply to our non-sporting lives; it might be instructive or inspiring.
There will be people in it. The less colorful (or the more numerous) the people and their stories are, the more cohesive and engaging the resulting ideas have to be.

Or, to put it Gopnik’s way: you break it down and build it back up.

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