The Smell of Victory 

Athletes make history. History makes athletes.

The Olympics will soon be over, and thank God for that. All the nicey-nice rhetoric about fair play and international brotherhood -- what a crock. The only Olympic spirit an ancient Greek sports fan wanted to see was his favorite athlete pummeling a fissure in an opponent's skull.

Let's not kid ourselves. Sports fans are incurable lunatics. They show all the pathologies: victim mentality ("We wuz robbed!"); narcissism ("Where's my lucky jersey? Where's my lucky jersey?"); and disassociation from reality ("Seriously, I think the Warriors have a shot this year").

As forms of insanity go, sports mania is mostly harmless. But when it mixes with nationalist politics -- that other expression of the paranoid mind -- the results can be deadly. As Franklin Foer relates in How Soccer Explains the World, hooligans from the soccer club Red Star Belgrade served as Slobodan Milosevic's shock troops in the Yugoslavian war, massacring their way through Bosnia and Croatia, singing stadium songs as they went. Foer describes a Red Star gang's recent exploits: "They formed a V-shaped formation and began to rampage ... around the stadium, beating anyone in their path. First, they attacked the visiting fans. Then they slugged their way through a horde of police. ... In their path, they left lines of casualties, like the fresh tracks of a lawn mower."

Despite this book's overambitious title, Soccer does not explain Yugoslavia, much less the world. Even its ambivalent subtitle, "An Unlikely Theory of Globalization," overreaches. Rather than offering a unified theory, Foer serves up ten loosely related essays that explore globalization through its effect on the world's most popular game. Soccer, he observes, is simultaneously one of the planet's most globalized and provincial businesses. Corporate "megabrands" such as Manchester United and Real Madrid field top players from all over the world. Satellite television carries the matches to a global audience. Despite the predictions of globalization's high priests, however, international capital has not washed away the game's local idiosyncrasies. In many places, age-old hatreds and corrupt financial arrangements persist.

In fact, certain clubs have found that bigotry is good business. Though religious conflict in Scotland has burned down to embers, Glasgow's Protestant and Catholic clubs, Rangers and Celtic, continue to attract supporters looking for a fight. In a strange, postmodern twist, however, both sides now field mostly Catholic players, and the Rangers' Catholic team captain leads supporters in anti-Catholic songs. The conflict has become its own justification. "The city has kept alive its soccer tribalism," Foer writes, "despite the logic of history, because it provides the city with a kind of pornographic pleasure."

Foer holds up his own adopted club, FC Barcelona, as a model of what the globalized soccer club could be: liberal in politics and cosmopolitan in outlook. For the right kind of fan, the club's history of noble failure on the pitch provides an added attraction. "Supporters of Barca," he writes, "want nothing more than victory, except for romance."

In America, nobody understands that sentiment better than the long-suffering fans of the Boston Red Sox. As Sox fans will tell you -- at length -- the team is cursed. Literally. For 85 excruciating years, the Sox have gone without a World Series while their divisional archrivals, the strutting, preening New York Yankees, have taken home sixteen. But would the Red Sox be the Red Sox if they finally won a series? That is the question that hangs over One Day at Fenway, Steve Kettmann's kaleidoscopic portrait of a Sox-Yankees day game at Boston's Fenway Park. To capture the game from multiple angles, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Kettmann organized a team of reporters who tagged along with players, groundkeepers, team executives, and a motley assortment of fans, ranging from the author of a book on the physics of baseball to There's Something About Mary director Peter Farrelly. Ex-US Senator George Mitchell, dropping by on his way to negotiating a Northern Ireland peace agreement, offers this explanation of Sox fan devotion: "You have to believe in something to feel fully committed and fully alive."

Sox fans have had years of experience giving their hearts to also-rans. This is a state of mind that takes lots of practice, and isn't for everyone: When once-formidable British athletes started losing competitions in the 1950s, Britons sank into despair. The cause of the problem was obvious. Athletes from other countries, especially America, were applying science to their training -- gobbling vitamins, calibrating their diets, and (shocking!) working out daily. By the genteel standards of English amateur athletics, that sort of total devotion to sports seemed, well, not quite cricket. But the results were indisputable. "It looked as though the quintessential English amateur -- who played solely for the enjoyment of the effort and never at the cost of a complete life -- simply couldn't handle the competition. He now looked outdated, inadequate, and tired," Neal Bascomb writes in The Perfect Mile. The implication was clear: If the well-rounded amateur athlete could not hack it in the modern world, then Britain itself likely could not either.

The British public pinned its hopes of national glory on Oxford medical student Roger Bannister, who resolved in 1952 to break the four-minute mile. For seven years, the record had remained at 4:01 and change. Many believed the human body could go no faster, but that didn't stop the best runners in the world from trying. The impossibly fit Australian John Landy and the cocky American Wes Santee, "The Kansas Flyer," seemed just as likely as Bannister to get there first.

Bascomb follows these three athletes through brutal conditioning sessions, trial races, and agonizing near-misses. While his attention to the minutiae of training sometimes bogs down the story, out on the track he sets a livelier pace. He has a keen eye for the details of a footrace: the agonizing moments before the starting gun, the exhausting struggle for position in the middle of the pack, the invisible tipping point where a runner succumbs to exhaustion or springs ahead to victory. He is especially good on the now-legendary May 1954 race in which Bannister finally broke the four-minute barrier. This achievement brought Britain together in ecstasy: "The Empire is saved," crowed one editorial. Another compared Bannister's accomplishment to the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

It's hard to imagine anything eliciting that sort of flag-waving reaction from the post-ironic teens in Amped, David Browne's survey of the world of action sports (or "core sports," if you prefer; just don't call them "extreme"). Browne charts the growth of skateboarding, snowboarding, freestyle BMX, and freestyle motocross (think double backflips on a 250cc motorcycle) from their origins as the pastimes of blue-collar kids to the multibillion-dollar-a-year industry they have now become, complete with televised competitions, music festivals, and lines of clothing. Browne scores up-close-and-personal interviews with action sports legends such as Tony Hawk and Bob Haro; unfortunately, little of their outlaw energy survives contact with Browne's awkward, inert prose and the book's tedious chapters on action-sports marketing.

The kids themselves, however, come across as utterly likable. They're not so much into team sports. They don't like submerging themselves in a group. "We have to know we can do things ourselves and not rely on others," says young skate guru Bob Burnquist. "There's a whole process of learning a trick that's about growing and character, and you try to transfer that to your life."

It is one of the rare utterances about sports that sounds totally, inarguably sane.


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