In our list of the best sporting biographies and autobiographies to have hit the shelves in the past few years, you may or may not be surprised to hear that it’s not all about sport. While fans and aspiring amateurs will find plenty of hitherto-undisclosed details and emotive accounts of sporting triumphs from some of its biggest stars, and narratives covering everything from the drudgery of gruelling daily training to the bright lights and big crowds of game-changing races and matches, it’s about so much more than that. The best sporting biographies are largely down to a matter of taste, but our round up will get you firmly on the right track.
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There are the usual suspects, of course, including representatives from the beautiful game, the world of tennis, and the odd showing from rugby. But there’s also cycling and long jump (g’won Greg!), tales from LGBT heroes, underdogs and legends against all the odds – and let’s be honest, isn’t that everyone’s favourite part of sport anyway?
For the real story from outspoken figures who’ve done things their own way, look to world champion cycling whizzkid Nicole Cooke and controversial player-turned-manager Roy Keane; for gut-wrenching reads on the darker side of life in sport, both on and off the pitch, give Gareth Thomas’ Proud or fan Adrian Tempany’s Hillsborough account, And the Sun Shines Now, a try. For tales of triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and determined naysayers, there’s long-jumper extraordinaire Greg Rutherford and speed demon Sir Mo Farah.
Whatever kind of story you’re looking for, you’ll find it in our PB list of the best sporting books, so read on.
1. Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest by Thomas Hauser
Life ringside gives former journalist Hauser enviable perspective on a boxing legend
Best for: Perspective on a legend | Sport: Boxing | Pages: 352 | Published: 2016 | Publisher: HarperSport
When the biographer’s been nominated for a Pulitzer, you know it’s going to be good, but the real star of the show here, of course, is The Greatest himself. A figure of fascination for many, the boxer is represented in what Hauser claims is his true light, despite years of what he perceives to be a campaign on the part of corporate America to downplay Ali’s influence. From years at the ringside as a boxing journalist, Hauser brings together personal insights, interviews and the memories of himself and others to build up a faithful picture of the sport’s most beloved figure.
2. The Breakaway by Nicole Cooke
Beacon of sportsmanship and all-round awesome athlete Cooke tells her side in this Sunday Times Sport Book of the Year
Best for: Another side to the scandal | Sport: Cycling | Pages: 464 | Published: 2014 | Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Despite remaining a seemingly lone light during world cycling’s darkest period, Nicole Cooke’s career and retirement have often been eclipsed by the glossy televised statements of some other famous cyclists – despite being the first British cyclist to rank number one in the world, and the only rider to have become Olympic and World champion in the very same year. Luckily, her brilliant autobiography fights back against this grave injustice, taking aim against the drug cheats who tarnished the name of the sport, as well as presenting a damning indictment of female athletes’ treatment in male-dominated sports.
3. Twin Ambitions: My Autobiography by Mo Farah
As if we didn’t love him enough already...
Best for: Success story | Sport: Running | Pages: 384 | Published: 2013 | Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
How long does it take a talented athlete to go from rising star of the track to household name? Well, for Mo Farah, we’d say it was about the time it took to run the 10,000m. On Super Saturday back in 2012, Mo affirmed his place in the nation’s hearts, but it wasn’t always such easy going, as this moving autobiography attests. From early years with his family in Mogadishu to refugee status in Djibouti, and further still to Britain at the age of eight, this book follows the fraught beginnings and subsequent unstoppable rise of Sir Mo, and makes a stonking read.
4. Unexpected: The Autobiography by Greg Rutherford
Probably the most likeable protagonist of any book you’ve read recently
Best for: Unflinching honesty | Sport: Long jump | Pages: 352 | Published: 2016 | Publisher: Simon & Schuster
As autobiography titles go, this one is pretty apt. Despite his triumph in the same Super Saturday extravaganza as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford was repeatedly brushed off by some particularly petty critics as merely lucky – to which he responded by scooping up every single major title he put his mind to. This autobiography shows how that same determination has been a pretty consistent theme of Rutherford’s life to date, including finding his calling partway down a path of sleeping rough and dropping out of school, and going at it with successful tenacity.
5. Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory by Andy Murray
A behind-closed-doors look at the real life of a modern-day legend
Best for: Rare insight | Sport: Tennis | Pages: 288 | Published: 2013 | Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Taking its name from the number of years that had passed between the last male British Wimbledon champion and Murray’s victory in 2013, you knew this autobiography was always going to be good. As one of Britain’s most beloved but least effusive athletes, Murray offers a rare insight into the realities of his life at the top through this personal account of a gruelling day-to-day, an intensely dramatic few years in the game, and more. Those hoping for shocking personal details won’t find them here, and that’s to Murray’s credit, but between the narrative and the photographs on each page, fans will find much to enjoy.
6. The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle
Two Irish legends come together in this typically no-holds-barred autobiography
Best for: Entertainment | Sport: Football | Pages: 304 | Published: 2014 | Publisher: Orion Publishing
It’s always exciting when a well-known novelist takes up the phantom pen as ghost-writer for an even more well-known figure, and that’s what we see here in the dynamic Irish duo of Keane and Doyle. Following his first autobiography, characterised by its account of his being excluded from the 2002 World Cup, The Second Half is no less brutally honest, this time meditating on the gut-wrenching moment when Keane’s Man United contract was torn up after the player castigated his teammates on fan TV, and other lows, mediated by incredible highs and moments of reflection.
7. Proud: My Autobiography by Gareth Thomas
Moving, revealing, and ground-breaking
Best for: Inspiration | Sport: Rugby | Pages: 320 | Published: 2014 | Publisher: Ebury Publishing
The story of former Welsh international and Lions captain Gareth Thomas is not one you see coming out of rugby very often, and that’s precisely what makes it so important. Charting the struggle between an inescapable love of the game and the secret identity that it wouldn’t let him express, Proud reveals the crushing lows of Thomas’ former double life in devastatingly emotive detail, but it’s not all doom and gloom – as we now know, Thomas’ coming out in 2009 has not only struck a chord with people all over the world, it’s also resulted in a man comfortable and self-assured in his own skin, which comes across beautifully in this book.
8. And the Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany
The whole spectrum of human experience meets cultural significance: not bad for a football book
Best for: Perspective | Sport: Football | Pages: 448 | Published: 2016 | Publisher: Faber & Faber
Despite the incredible weight of survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and the inescapability of such a high-profile tragedy, this book by Hillsborough survivor Adrian Tempany reaches some surprisingly optimistic conclusions. While it couldn’t be more different to the triumphant tales of most of our picks, it’s one of the most important sports books of our age, not so much about the mechanics of the game, or even the horrifying events that took place on April 15, 1989, as the place that football and its fans occupy in British culture, and in the public consciousness.
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