Because it's good for you: Barbara McVeigh on reading #SportsLit
My personal interest into the world of sports stories began one morning while I was house-sitting for my parents. I had never been a big sports fan, but, being bored, I flicked on the television set and came across the 1993 Tour de France. Lance Armstrong was going for his record fifth title. I thought: OK, I can watch this. I loved to ride a bike as a kid. And wasn’t this the guy who was supposed to have almost died from cancer?
Priscila Uppal writes in her introductory essay to Winter Sport that “sports are rife with the drama of life, with full and rich metaphorical and symbolic possibilities” and the 1993 Tour de France was no exception. Each day of the three-week race was another barrier to Armstrong’s chance of achieving his record. The most epic stages were those in the mountains: grueling climbs lined with drunken spectators slapping riders on the back as the riders ground their way to the top. There could be a gasp-inducing crash while the riders were hurtling themselves down a steep and snaking descent at 90 km an hour. In their reportage, the commentators painted the commitment and qualities of the cyclists: There were breakaways and bunch sprints, competitors suffering from road rash, and a Frenchman who continually unpacked his suitcase of courage. As well, there were riders who had the ability to turn themselves inside out and still others who could dance on their pedals.
I was hooked by the storyline and the personalities who made up the quirky cast of characters. A grand battle between heroes and villains was being played out on the roads of France. What had I been missing?
Thrilled by the narrative of cycling, I started to read books about the sport. Sports provide fertile ground for mythology. In fact, there is presently a God of Thunder riding in the peloton. Books like Michael Barry’s Inside the Postal Bus or Lori-Ann Muenzer’s One Gear, No Breaks detail how the athlete is transformed into a hero. He or she must overcome incredible physical challenges and overwhelming odds. Barry shows what it was like to ride on Lance Armstrong’s legendary team; Muenzer tells how a 38-year-old amateur became a gold medal Olympic champion.
My professional interest in sports literature came about when I was trying to find books to purchase for my school library. How could I hook reluctant readers?
One clue is the status of our sports section. It’s always in a mess. But that’s a good thing. It means that the students are in there, digging out books, delving into them, reading them. At lunch, there’ll always be a gaggle of (usually) boys perusing the section and chatting.
Students are drawn to these stories because sport is so much a part of their lives. One of my students is on the wrestling team and was researching the issue of wrestlers and weight. When I told him about the opening scene of Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage where the wrestlers are wearing plastic suits in a sauna to cut weight, his eyes lit up: There’s a book about that?” he asked. “Do you have it?”
Sports literature is more than just a tale offering the recipe for monetary success and fame. Despite the competition and commercialism innate to sport, sports lit does seem to be imbued with “a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”, qualities outlined in the Olympic Charter. Integrity in sport is a fundamental virtue. Yes, there are cheaters. But they are not our heroes.
Some books take their readers to yet another level: Jon Turk’s The Raven’s Gift or Ray Zahab’s Running to Extremes illustrate how sport or adventure leads to spirituality and self-discovery. In both cases, the hero’s journey starts with a physical limitation. For Turk it was a broken pelvis; for Zahab, it was his barfly lifestyle: smoking, drinking and obesity. By pushing themselves past their limits, each participant gained enlightenment and a new way of living.
It is a natural fit to have a sports literature section in my library. These books provide a powerful way to teach teens about character, a recent buzzword in education. Sports lit shows students who are disenchanted with the world that hard work and achievement (as opposed to the quick fix) is what lifts you out of the void. It teaches them that every hero has his or her trials in life: What makes a hero different from a villain is that he or she chooses to embrace the challenges rather than take the easy way out.
Barbara McVeigh is a teacher-librarian and cyclist. She considers herself extremely lucky that her profession involves buying books. On the weekends, she’s usually on her bike attempting to climb some part of the Niagara Escarpment. She tweets about reading and riding as @barbaramcveigh. She is grateful to her Twitter accomplices Angie and Vicki for their generous ideas and conversations about #SportsLit.