ONE OF THE MOST interesting and intriguing sports books published in Australia in 2018 is The Finest Gold: The Making of an Olympic Swimmer, the autobiography of Brad Cooper, winner of the gold medal in the men’s 400 metres freestyle at the 1972 Munich Games. Some of the stories — such as that of his often dysfunctional early life as a child of a broken marriage, his battles with coach Don Talbot, and the manner of his Olympic triumph (Cooper finished second by one-hundredth of a second to the USA’s Rick DeMont, but gained the gold when DeMont failed a drugs test) — are fresh, revealing and cleverly told.
Cooper’s story is bookended by two anecdotes. The first involves a bizarre scene, as the new Olympic champion returns to his dormitory in the athletes’ village to find journalist Ernie Christensen perched on the end of the 18-year-old’s bed, chasing his reaction to the judge’s decision. ‘Obviously you can’t accept the gold under those circumstances,’ says the veteran scribe, trying to cajole words out of the swimmer’s mouth that will headline the next day’s front page. The second story comes from the inaugural World Swimming Championships in Belgrade, held a year after Munich, when DeMont won a thrilling re-match in world record time ...
On the victory dais when American photographers were falling over themselves to capture their redemption clichés, one kept barking at me to raise DeMont’s arm. Instructions heeded, I fished for the victor’s wrist but he wrenched it away, muttering, ‘Don’t do it, Brad, they just want a Munich revenge shot.’
And suddenly it seemed an honour to have come second.
In between, there are some harrowing tales, and you are left wondering how Cooper could ever have become, in Talbot’s words, ‘the best male swimmer I ever coached’. The book is not perfect, as it loses its way a little in its final 80 (of 300) pages, but it is still important, one of the best I've read this year. My aim in this essay is to nominate my top five Australian sports books of 2018. That The Finest Gold does not make my top five is proof that several of the offerings this year have been outstanding.
Early in Cooper’s book, he tells of ‘watching’ Gail Neall’s swim in the 400 metres individual medley in Munich as he waited for the men’s 1500 metres freestyle final, by following the race on a monitor in a room away from the pool. There is no vision on the screen, just the lap times for each of the competitors. As the times are updated, Neall’s victory is assured, and ‘my involuntary half-leap from my chair when Gail’s time touches first could pass for rowdiness: it’s one of the most exhilarating sporting triumphs I’ve seen’.
The only trouble is, Neall’s gold medal win occurred five days earlier. On the day of the men’s 1500 metres final, she finished seventh in the 200 metres butterfly. When she claimed gold, Cooper most likely would have been in that same room, waiting for the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay final, in which the Australian team of Cooper, Robert Nay, Michael Wenden and Graham Windeatt would finish fifth. Clearly, his memories of these two nights have merged; my question is, should his editor have corrected him? Later, he admits he has scant recollection of his gold medal swim, doesn’t try to concoct a memory he does not have, and the book retains its authenticity as a result. I can give examples (but won’t) from sports books published this year, including some of the best-selling titles, where the authors have rewritten history for malicious reasons or to embellish the story. Brad Cooper does not do this, which is one of the reasons his book is so enlightening.
Following an interview Cooper did recently with the ABC’s Tracey Holmes, one of Holmes’ Twitter followers sent her a message: ‘Loads of crap sports books advertised for Xmas: then you find out about a terrific book by Brad Cooper through listening to a podcast … great interview with Brad by the way.’
It was a great interview, but I can’t agree that there are loads of crap sports books out there this festive season. Yes, there are some ordinary ones, same as every other genre, but there are many worthy ones sitting alongside The Finest Gold on the sports shelves and they are the ones I am focusing on. I’m not trying to list every sports book published in Australia in 2018 (Greg Blood, at The Roar, had done that here), just the ones I liked the most ...
ONE THING THAT MIGHT give the impression that the quality of Australian sports books is in freefall is that, for the second year in a row in Australia, there is no great cricket book. The best read is Gideon Haigh’s Crossing the Line, which deftly explains the recent decline of Australian cricket. The best presented is the ‘complete illustrated biography’ of Rod Marsh, a worthy cousin to Affirm Press’ previous books on the careers of Dennis Lillee and Adam Gilchrist. Daniel Lane’s Big Bash Superstars is the sort of publication I would have wanted when I was a kid. However, the first cricket title on my Christmas list would be Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man, by Bernard Whimpress and Graeme Ryan. Haigh’s book is only 184 pages, the first of Slattery Media’s ‘Sports Shorts collection’, so there wasn’t much room to contemplate what might have happened if the Australian teams of the decade before Tim Paine became captain had been led by a man as strong and dignified as Joe Darling, skipper from 1899 to 1905. It’s an interesting thought.
As always, there are a number of ghosted autobiographies across many sports. The best of them, I think, is tennis champion and Paralympian Dylan Alcott’s Able: Gold medals, grand slams and smashing glass ceilings, in part because Alcott’s co-author, Grantlee Kieza, has so nicely captured his subject’s relentless positivity. It’s one of those books that, every time you pick it up and read a few pages, you feel better for the experience.
There are some excellent sporting biographies, not least The Peter Norman Story by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman. Some of the things said and written about Peter Norman, the 1968 Olympic 200 metres silver medallist on the athletics track, during the last decade have been a bit weird. The evidence is far from clear that he was ever banished from Australian athletics as punishment for his role in the ‘Black Power’ protest by the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 200 metres medal ceremony, but some people have suggested that is exactly what occurred. Fortunately, this book adroitly handles every side of the argument, not only setting the story straight but also reminding us that Norman was an exceptional athlete, perhaps our best ever male sprinter. I was proud to be able to publish Michael Sharp’s biography of 800 metres gold medallist Ralph Doubell on the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Games; the twin stories of Doubell and Norman, who ran their finals on consecutive days, make a wonderful pair.
I was tempted to include The Peter Norman Story in my top five, but instead I’ve chosen another important biography of a remarkable sporting achiever. Sir Hubert Opperman’s life story is like no other — a cyclist who became a household name in Australia by his extraordinary feats of endurance, his role in building the Malvern Star brand and his years as a cabinet minister in the Menzies government. He was a revered figure in Europe, and especially in France, where his heroic performances in events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Brest-Paris earned him ongoing respect. Daniel Oakman’s Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman is a fond and thoroughly researched tribute that paints a colourful portrait of cycling in Europe and Australia between the wars, and also sheds light on some intriguing political machinations in the ’50s and ’60s. Opperman might have felt more comfortable as Immigration Minister if he had filled the role in an earlier time, but his competitive instincts as he fights to retain his seat of Corio in the 1963 federal election against a tenacious young Labor opponent in Bob Hawke are on show as clearly as if he was trying to escape the peloton. The anecdote from August 1991 Oakman uses to close his book is magnificent …
Sometime after the proceedings, Hubert and [his wife] Mavys entered a small bank near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the apartment they had rented 60 years earlier. He passed over a traveller’s cheque with his passport. The young teller checked the documents, paused and looked again at the elderly, beret-wearing figure before him. ‘Êtes-vous Hubert Opperman du cyclisme?’ he asked while making the exaggerated pantomime movements for riding a bicycle. Opperman didn’t need to draw on his rusty French to know what he meant. The teller, unable to contain himself, turned to his colleagues and announced that the great Oppy had arrived at their humble establishment. With the transaction complete, Hubert and Mavys bade the staff au revoir and left to a standing ovation. They stepped out into the street, the applause ringing in their ears.
Some books this year stand out simply because of the authors’ undoubted love of their sport. An excellent example is Around the Grounds by former ABC commentator (and Sydney Cricket Ground scoreboard operator) Peter Newlinds. My favourite chapter concerns Newlinds’ years covering the Sydney Hobart yacht race. Golf fans will enjoy Preferred Lies by Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, a compilation of original stories and previously published yarns by the authors and their friends. If you only have time to read one chapter, make it the one by Kathie Shearer, wife of Bob and long-time manager of media centres at major tournaments; it’s an absolute gem! Motoring writer John Smailes’ Race across the World, recalling the epic London-to-Sydney marathon that finished in dramatic circumstances 50 years ago this month, is enjoyable throughout, and revealing too, not least when Smailes interviews Allan Chilcott, now 68, an innocent spectator in a Mini Cooper S who was involved in the sensational crash on the penultimate stage that cost Belgium’s Lucien Bianchi and France’s Jean-Claude Ogier victory.
No one loves his sport more than the best rugby league statistician in the business. Last December, I wrote, ‘The best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual.’ Ditto 2018. This is the 32nd edition of Middleton’s annual, a prodigious achievement that should be formally recognised by the NRL. The top-selling Australian sports book of this year is a league book, the Johnathan Thurston autobiography, but while it is very readable I felt a little disappointed at full-time — perhaps for no other reason than that JT, in my opinion the best rugby league player of all time, seemed to me to spend too many pages nursing either a schooner or a hangover. The book also contained the most annoying ‘little thing’ I saw in a sports book all year — captions where the match scores are often listed with the beaten team’s total first: ‘After we took the game, 13–16, I handed my premiership ring to Steve Price’ … ‘The Kangaroos thrashed England 16–46 and I was Man of the Match’ … ‘We thumped the Kiwis 2–24 – and I was Man of the Match’. Maybe this bugged only me, but captions are an advertisement for the entire product, and in a tome of this magnitude it’s the sort of thing that should have been right.
Not that this was the most aggravating thing I saw in an Australian sports book. That ‘prize’ goes to a paragraph in Winx: The Authorised Biography, where author Andrew Rule writes, ‘It is safe to say Winx would toy with the fields Phar Lap, Tulloch and Bernborough beat.’ Unless I’m mistaken, the insinuation is that the legends of days gone past didn’t beat much during their fantastic careers. But among the horses that finished far behind Phar Lap were champions such as Mollison, Nightmarch, Amounis and Chatham. During the recent spring carnival, after UK commentator Matt Chapman suggested Winx had defeated ‘fairly moderate horses’ during the mare’s extraordinary winning streak, trainer Chris Waller responded, ‘I think he's a bit of a dickhead for saying it.’ When I read Rule’s denigration of Phar Lap’s greatest rivals, I wondered if he was guilty of a similar crime.
The Authorised Biography benefits from the access Rule had to Winx’s connections (Waller’s regular emails to the owners are a feature), but in my view Trevor Marshallsea, the author of Winx: Biography of a Champion, which was released three months earlier, is the better storyteller, so there is little between the two books. To be honest, if I was getting a racing book for Christmas I’d be just as happy to receive either The Gauch, by Kristen Manning, in part because the book’s subject, Darren Gauci, was for many years my favourite jockey, or Greg Miles: My Lucky Life, by John Craven, the story of a master racecaller.
Rugby union as a major sport in Australia continued its decline in 2018, but the code was blessed with two of the best books of the year. Greg Growden’s The Wallabies at War features more characters than Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and many similarly compelling storylines too. It’s one of those books where if you got a team around a table to name their favourite personality from the pages, you’d get 15 different nominations. Mine are Twit Tasker, Silly Bob McGowan and Rat Flanagan. The research is fantastic; the stories are sad, funny, grim and inspiring. And yet, as engrossing as Growden’s book is, I think Mike Colman’s biography of Eddie Jones, the former coach of the Brumbies, Australia and Japan who is now in charge of England, is even better. Colman’s book was originally published by Allen & Unwin in London, but he has been writing for the Courier Mail and Sunday Mail forever and much of the book’s action takes place in Australia, so it qualifies as an Australian sports book.
In 2007–08, when I was working with George Gregan on his autobiography, George suggested I interview Eddie Jones. It was one of the best hours of my life, as Jones explained 21st-century rugby to me in a way that George, for all his best efforts, couldn’t quite do. The coach’s rare passion for the game, his love for and understanding of its intricacies and his desire to help me out, to teach, won me over. Colman manages to capture all that, and more, including Jones’ prickly and provocative sides, even though his subject — who is apparently working on a book of his own — did not grant him an interview. Often, this can work to a biographer’s advantage, as he or she is freer to measure positives against negatives. That is what happens here.
It was also a positive year for books on football in Australia, largely due to the efforts of Fair Play Publishing. In May, Fair Play released Encyclopedia of Socceroos, by the game’s No. 1 statistician, Andrew Howe, who is described on the book’s front flap by Fox Sports’ Andy Harper as ‘a once-in-a-generation football anorak … he is to the playing and demographic history and statistics of Australian football what Pelé or Maradona or Cruyff or Ronaldo is to the game itself’. After reading Howe’s mighty work, I wonder if Harper is selling him short. The playing career of every Socceroo, from the nation’s international debut in 1922 to the end of 2017, is covered, with my only quibble being that the profiles of the leading pioneers from before World War II are sometimes scant compared to the space given to modern stars. I appreciate Australia played precious few A Internationals until the 1960s, but I would have liked a full page on Reg Date, for example, rather than Wally Savor. But this is a minor criticism, balanced by the warm tributes by respected journalist Ray Gatt to our four World Cup captains — Peter Wilson, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill and Mile Jedinak — that lead the comprehensive stats section at the back of the book.
Late in the year, Fair Play released Playing for Australia: The First Socceroos, Asia and World Football, by Trevor Thompson, which is an important complement to Howe’s grand Encyclopedia. Thompson takes us right back to the earliest games of Association football played in the days before Federation, and explains why, unlike the two rugby codes, the national ‘soccer’ team struggled for international recognition. Football in Australia should be very grateful for the work of Howe and Thompson in documenting the game’s rich history, and to Fair Play Publishing for having the enterprise and courage to produce both books.
Australian football was another sport well served by its best books in 2018. First to appear was Martin Flanagan’s A Wink From the Universe: the inside story of the AFL’s greatest fairytale, the Bulldogs 2016 premiership. Unfortunately, coming 18 months after the Bulldogs beat the Swans, and six months after Richmond’s fairytale in 2017, the book seemed a little dated from day one, but Flanagan is a fine wordsmith who writes with much affection about his favourite team. The Norm Smith Medallists, by Dan Eddy, is a worthy piece of history, as is Sam Lane’s Roar: The stories behind AFLW — a movement bigger than sport. In contrast, while George Megalogenis remains my favourite political commentator, I found his The Football Solution disappointing — he lost me from the moment he libelled Charles Bannerman, the most dashing Australian batsman of the 19th century, on page 18 and never won me back. Megalogenis’ previous books, on politics and economics, contain an index, so why not this one? I did enjoy but sometimes got infuriated with Footballistics, by James Coventry, which seeks to explain how data analytics are changing the game. Coventry and his team do a good job in never getting too bogged down in numbers, but I continue to have a real frustration with how modern-day sports statisticians sometimes use their stats to suit themselves. One example: chapter 12 strongly argues the case for Tom Leahy, the best ruckman in South Australia in the early years of the 20th century, to be included in the Hall of Fame, as if it is a felony to downplay the achievements of the early champions; chapter 13 bends the numbers a different way to conclude that the top 10 teams of all time have all come from the last 50 years, six of the ten from the last two decades.
THE BEST AFL BOOK of the year, in my view, is unquestionably Leather Soul: a half-back flanker’s rhythm and blues, by Bob Murphy. Indeed, I think it is the sports book of the year. I’m a rugby league aficionado, so it takes a bit for me to really fall for an ‘Aussie rules’ book, and I imagine Murphy might not be to every AFL fan’s taste, but he had me from the prologue, as he prepared to not play in the 2016 grand final (Murphy, the Western Bulldogs captain, missed most of the season with a knee injury). This is a proud yet humble man who loves his sport, but not too much to miss its foibles, and he has a Steve Waugh-like ability to stop and ‘smell the roses’ occasionally, rather than stay totally absorbed by this week’s game, next week’s game and the one after that. Like Waugh and Brad Cooper, Murphy writes his own copy, and his editor Peter Hanlon and publisher Black Inc./Nero have done a superb job in keeping their author’s voice on every page.
It’s a book of many highlights. One favourite for me, which I would never have thought I would relish, is when Murphy writes about pre-season training in 2016 …
I read in Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, that he trained hard as a way of keeping his clinical depression at bay. His outlet was lifting heavy weights. In his own words, this left him ‘too tired to be depressed’. I found that really interesting. I don’t suffer from debilitating mental illness, but I can appreciate how the fatigue of exercise can simplify your life.
I’m sitting here right now with my aching legs stretched out on the couch. Having just eaten two meals, I’m too tired to sleep, too exhausted to move. It’s a beautiful feeling. Pre-season, in particular, simplifies your life. You train, eat and recover. Train, eat and recover. Logic tells you that the repetition would become boring, but I’ve found it to be the complete opposite. It’s like physical poetry. There are some days and moments that don’t inspire me, of course, but for the most part, it relaxes me. I’m 34 years old, coming off my best year as a player, and I feel stronger than I ever have. In my private moments, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be able to play forever. I feel faster now than I did when I was 21. I don’t know if that’s normal.
What follows in Murphy’s career adds a rare poignancy to these observations. It’s not what you find in a run-of-the-mill sporting memoir. Andrew Howe’s colossal work could easily have been the sports book of 2018, but Leather Soul is special, as good a sporting identity’s life story as I have read in several years. Maybe, as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in the UK did last month, I should have declared a tie. But as Brad Cooper might say, it can be an honour to come second.
When I wrote recently about the 'death' of Australian sports books, I was highlighting the fact that people are not buying good sports books as they did in days gone by, fewer people still are reading them, and it can be desperately hard to effectively promote them. There is a certain irony that, at a time when sales of all but the biggest ‘celebrity’ sports books are slumping, the Australian sports publishing industry can still produce books of the calibre of Leather Soul and Encyclopedia of Socceroos, and also Eddie Jones, The Wallabies at War, Oppy, The Peter Norman Story, The Finest Gold and more. What all the stakeholders — authors, booksellers, publishers, fans, reviewers, administrators and members of the media — need to do now is create an environment that ensures this can continue. Australian sport will be much the poorer if we do not.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2018
Bob Murphy: Leather Soul; Nero
Andrew Howe: Encyclopedia of Socceroos; Fair Play Publishing
Mike Colman: Eddie Jones: Rugby Maverick; Allen & Unwin
Greg Growden: The Wallabies at War; ABC Books
Daniel Oakman: Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman; Melbourne Books
I was lucky to get my hands on several superb sports books from overseas in 2018. The best from the UK, in my view, were State of Play, by Michael Calvin, a remarkable expose of modern football, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, by Oliver Hilmes, a riveting account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and How Football Began: A Global History of how the World’s Football Codes Were Born, by the remarkable rugby league historian Tony Collins. My favourite two books from the US were Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, by Mark Leibovich, and Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Fall of the USFL, by Jeff Pearlman.