The New Yorker relaunched its website yesterday, signaling a shift in the magazine’s new focus on the internet. In honour of their revamped online presence, the magazine has made their archive (from 2007 to present, plus an assortment of older pieces) free to the public for the remainder of the summer.
Yesterday, we put together a list of 8 must-read pieces from The New Yorker. The 8 articles cover an array of different topics, from Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem — I” to Truman Capote’s profile on Marlon Brando.
Today we’ve complied 8 of The New Yorker’s best sports pieces. We tried to pick both old pieces and contemporary ones, along with a variety of topics spanning different sports. By no means is it an exhaustive list, and feel free to add ones we missed in the comments section.
If you’re lamenting the slow time of the year in sports, these pieces might help.
John Updike’s profile on Ted Williams centres around Williams’ final at-bat in Fenway Park but covers the ballplayer’s life and relationship with his team and with the city of Boston. “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories,” writes Updike.
Even the most diehard Yankees fans can appreciate Updike’s prose and eye for detail about baseball. Here’s Upike on Fenway:
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.
Levy profiles Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won the 800 meter championship at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin before questions were raised about her gender. The piece examines important issues, like how we consider gender and sexuality, and how these topics relate to sports and to South African culture. Although extensive gender tests by the IAFF — track and field’s governing body — ultimately allowed Semenya to keep her gold medal and compete in future races, including the 2012 London Olympics where Semenya took silver, she will forever be shadowed by the 2009 gender scandal.
But, setting aside the issue of gender, there is still no such thing as a level playing field in sports. Different bodies have physical attributes, even abnormalities, that may provide a distinct advantage in one sport or another. The N.B.A., for instance, has had several players with acromegaly — the overproduction of growth hormone. Michael Phelps, who has won fourteen Olympic gold medals, has unusually long arms and is said to have double-jointed elbows, knees, and ankles. Is Caster Semenya’s alleged extra testosterone really so different?
Murakami’s memoir about his relationship between running and writing fiction is captivating, even if you don’t fancy yourself much of a novelist or long-distance runner. Like many great pieces of sportswriting, Murakami’s is about much more than actual sports — it precisely details fears and anxieties as universal as marriage, career choices, and quitting smoking. Murakami’s also a big baseball fan, and his retelling of a game between the Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp is excellent.
Here’s Murakami on running:
That’s why I’ve never recommended running to others. If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference. Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even suggested that I be a novelist — in fact, some tried to stop me. I simply had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. People become runners because they’re meant to.
Mead’s profile on Shaquille O’Neal, at the time the center for the Los Angeles Lakers, brilliantly describes the outrageous life of Shaq both on and off the court. At one point, she describes how O’Neal envisions his future mausoleum, covered with Superman logos, TVs showing his basketball highlights, all with stadium-style seating. The piece is high-quality entertainment because, well, so is Shaq. Here’s Mead on Shaq and home improvement:
Fortunately, if O’Neal is recovering from surgery he will have the solace of various home improvements that are under way in Orlando, where his house measures thirty-six thousand square feet, and faces four hundred yards of waterfront. He has already added an eight-thousand-square-foot gym and a regulation-size basketball court, and contractors have started on the other side of the house, adding a new swimming pool and another nine thousand square feet of living space, including seven new bedrooms (O’Neal already has a master bedroom with a circular bed measuring twenty feet across), a recreation room, a cigar room, a movie theatre, and a private dance club with a state-of-the-art d.j. booth.
Liebling is one of the great 20th century sportswriters, best known for his pieces in The New Yorker on boxing. “Ahab and Nemesis” details Rocky Marciano versus Archie Moore at Yankee Stadium, one of the premier fights in America’s golden age of boxing. It’s a fight of intellect versus force — Moore, the crafty fighter, trading blows with Marciano, the hard-hitting champion of the world. As he watches the fight, Liebling references everything from Moby Dick to Don Giovanni to Winston Churchill, and the combination of high- and low-brow allusions mixed with brilliant boxing details make Liebling himself as much of a character in the piece as any fighter.
Here’s Liebling describing Marciano entering the ring:
At about ten-thirty, the champion and his faction entered the ring. It is not customary for the champion to come in first, but Marciano has never been a stickler for protocol. He is a humble, kindly fellow, who even now will approach an acquaintance on the street and say bashfully, “Remember me? I’m Rocky Marciano.” The champion doesn’t mind waiting five or ten minutes to give anybody a punch in the nose.
Collins’ profile on Novak Djokovic spans his rise from humble beginnings in Serbia to the third best player in world tennis but perennially overshadowed by the historic rivalry between Federer and Nadal. At the time of the article, Djokovic had just begun to emerge from these shadows, but Collins wonders if he’ll ever act like a champion in the way both Nadal and Federer have. Over the course of the piece Collins dazzles with her details on Djokovic, whose as polarising as he is dominant:
He bounces the ball a million times before he serves. His play is plasmatic. He seems to flow toward the corners of the court. He is an origami man, folding at the waist to dig up a drop shot, starfishing for a high forehand return, cocking his leg behind his head in an arabesque as he blasts a backhand down the line. He lunges, he dives, he beats his pecs. He once yelled — in Serbian — “Now you all will suck my dick!”
Owens dives deeply into the malady that plagues many athletes (not just golfers), known as the yips. He begins the piece describing the peculiar golf swing of Hank Haney, the golf coach of Tiger Woods who also happens to have the yips: “He drew his driver back high in the air while turning to look at the clubhead, took a baseball-like practice swing well above the ball — then, immediately, took the club all the way back again and swung,” Owen talks to sports psychologists, neurologists, and yip-infected professional athletes in every sport from baseball to cricket to archery. It’s a fascinating read:
Yipping also is usually extremely task-specific. Haney never stopped being a good putter. Knoblauch didn’t have a problem throwing from the outfield. Archers who can no longer hit a bull’s-eye often have no trouble shooting at bare bales of straw. If the yips and other sports-related movement problems are solely a matter of anxiety, why do they affect only certain motions? And how can a change of target, technique, or equipment sometimes make them go away?
Perhaps the most interesting part of Specter’s 2002 profile on Lance Armstrong is reading it today with knowledge of how the entire Armstrong fiasco played out. At the time of the piece’s publication, Armstrong is at the apex of his career and fame, having recovered from cancer and won multiple Tour de Frances with his Postal Service team. Specter’s love of Lance resonates throughout the piece, and it’s hard to not shake your head when reading about performance-enhancing drugs and the random dug tests Armstong was subject to. But there’s also great writing about cycling, and it’s fascinating to remember a time when Armstrong was among the most beloved athlete in sports:
In Austin, Lance (other than Dubya, he is the only one-name Texan) has a more devoted following than Bush, Lyle Lovett, and the Texas Longhorns football team combined. One night during my weekend in Austin, I drove over to Chuy’s, an informal Tex-Mex place that is one of Armstrong’s favourite local restaurants. (It was famous locally even before a hardworking bartender carded President Bush’s nineteen-year-old daughter Jenna.) Armstrong has a weakness for Chuy’s burritos.
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