Reviewed by Allen Barra
Sunday, March 23, 2008
THE GREAT SWIM By Gavin Mortimer | Walker. 325 pp. $24.95
After winning three gold medals in the 1924 Olympics, Johnny Weissmuller was asked why he chose swimming as a sport. He answered that he hadn't taken up swimming because it was a sport, but because it was fun. Of course, there's swimming and there's swimming. Weissmuller swam in pools; Gertrude Ederle and Mille Gade, the first two women to swim the English Channel, competed in tougher arenas.
In 1926, in what might be the most amazing athletic achievement of the century, Ederle swam 21 miles from Cape Gris-Nez, France, to Kingsdown, England, to break the record held by a man, Argentina's Enrico Tiraboschi, by nearly two hours. A comparable achievement today might be Michelle Wie beating Tiger Woods by 15 strokes -- if Wie's life were at risk each time she approached the sand traps. Ederle, Gade and others who made the attempt battled cold water, treacherous tides, dense fog and even sudden storms -- and, as amateurs, did it all for the love of the sport.
In The Great Swim, British journalist Gavin Mortimer tells this story with a verve that pulls the reader in like a high tide. Here's Ederle in the last half-mile of her historic swim: "At 8:45 Ederle . . . didn't know if she had the strength to make one final push for the shore. Her senses were dulled, her spirits depressed, and her body shattered. . . . She was cold, so cold, with her layers of grease washed away by the sea. She craved sleep. It would be so easy to climb aboard the Alsace[her trailing ship] she told herself, as close to her as it was with its bright lights and warm cabin." After conquering the Channel, Ederle was an American hero, as celebrated as Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth or Bobby Jones; when she died in 2003 at age 97, she was all but forgotten. Her legacy, which included the Olympic Committee's increasing the number of swimming events for women, was confined to a few short lines in her obituary.
But right up to the end of her life, Ederle had no complaints. "I'm not a person," she told a reporter in the 1950s, "who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars."HIGH CRIMES The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed By Michael Kodas | Hyperion. 357 pp. $24.95
Some of the characters in Michael Kodas's High Crimes seem to want not only the moon and the stars, but the summit of Mt. Everest and all it can be exploited for. In 2004, on assignment for the Hartford Courant, Kodas joined an expedition to scale Everest led by two veteran climbers. Whatever the paper paid him, it wasn't enough. As if the constant threat of death weren't sufficiently terrifying, he discovered more deceit, thievery and double-crossing among his climbers than you find in a Martin Scorsese gangster film.
High Crimes is both an adventure story and an expos¿ of a sport riddled with danger and corruption that have mostly gone unnoticed because so few can afford to play. Rich folks from all over the world pay $65,000 or more to unqualified, disreputable types who promise to take them to the top of Everest. (The fate of eight who died in 1996 was the subject of Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air.) Kodas's book is exhilarating, though at times a tad confusing. He doesn't make clear why his party's expedition unraveled, as if the rarefied air clouded his senses; he's better at the big picture, bringing into focus a world where "virtually every guide on Everest has turned away clients who didn't have the skill, experience, or the cash to climb the mountain, only to have them show up there anyway with whatever agency offered up Everest at a price they could afford." Why do they do it? For the same reason that English mountaineer George Mallory ventured onto Everest in the first place -- because it's there.MAJOR A Black Athlete, a White Era, And the Fight to be the World's Fastest Human Being By Todd Balf | Crown. 306 pp. $24
More than a half-century before Mallory's climb and nearly a quarter-century before Ederle's swim, black bicyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor was the fastest man on earth and perhaps the most famous athlete in the world. Taylor's meteoric rise to fame and his legendary 1904 showdown with white racer Floyd McFarland in Australia have been chronicled before, most notably by British journalist Andrew Ritchie in 1988. But Todd Balf, a former senior editor for Outside magazine, has written the definitive biography and done the best job of explaining a complex man -- Taylor was a poet and wrote an autobiography -- in a complex world. As a young man he was supported by a wealthy white family, and at his peak he was probably better known among white fans than black, though he was often vilified in the white press.
The highlight of Major is the confrontation -- or confrontations, as they faced off in two scintillating races -- with McFarland, a pugnacious bigot. Balf writes that their races "riveted the public's attention the way modern-day NASCAR does." Their races could not have happened in the United States in the early 1900s, when interracial competitions were not allowed. Balf recreates them in pulse-pounding prose: "Much to the crowd's satisfaction, the pace was torrid. . . . The leaders dashed around the track in excess of 30 mph, legs spinning furiously, backs flattened to prevent wind drag, and bodies canting precariously as they banked into the turns mere inches apart." Why does Hollywood waste time with innocuous sports fiction when real-life dramatic gold of this quality remains unmined?GOD SAVE THE FAN How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back) By Will Leitch | Harper. 295 pp. $24.95
Too bad for Major Taylor that he was 100 years too early for the Internet; it would have been fascinating to see how sports writing's most dedicated contrarian, Will Leitch, would have covered his career. We can get a clue from a tag on the cover of God Save the Fan, which proudly announces "Blackballed by ESPN!"
Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin.com, doesn't presume to speak for the fans, but as one. He's the best there is at saying things that other sports commentators can't or just plain won't.
Among the sacred cows he slaughters: The Olympics ("We attach patriotic feelings to [Olympic snowboarder Shaun White] . . . because we have to. Otherwise, the Olympics are just a bunch of people we've never heard of playing sports we could care less about"), sportswriter Frank Deford ("dissolved from a legitimate writer into a dirty old man writing three-thousand-word odes to Anna Kornikova's breasts and calves"), the National Football League ("gets away with everything because the fans are slaves to the violence. . . . It's our national bloodsport. . . . If you do steroids in baseball, you're a pariah. But if you do steroids in the NFL, you're an MVP candidate"), and ESPN ("They're like the Imperial Forces from the Star Wars movies; controlling everything with a dark hand, ESPN does not want you to notice that it's warping everything you see").
God Save The Fan is perfect for bathroom reading. Samples from its "Fan Glossary":
Redskins, Washington: "One would think a fan base that wears pig masks and grandmother dresses would be more sensitive about the inappropriate team name. Actually, one wouldn't."
Nationals, Washington: "Orioles fan, in fact. Keeping an open mind until the new stadium, though. Pretends Montreal never happened."
If you can't find something to laugh at and be offended by on the same page of this book, you aren't reading carefully enough. *
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal.