SPORTS BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Sport by Simon Barnes

TMoS; front cover. The question mark says it all.

2006 was met with great fanfare and glowing endorsement from Barnes’ fellow writers, when his book The Meaning of Sport was published.  I read it for the first time in 2008, fresh from the cool and brilliant Beijing Olympics.  High on sport, the promise of excellence and a summer diet of Sport Media, I remembered enjoying Barnes’ take on the subject.  As a blog post therefore, I thought a quick re-read would be a sure fire way to a positive and upbeat review.  But I was wrong.

I can’t possibly say what on earth happened in the past seven years, but TMoS this time around made me guffaw out loud – at times at its sheer condescension and sickeningly conceited tone.  Don’t get me wrong, Barnes demonstrates the supreme skill expected of a (at the time of the books writing), Chief Sportswriter at the Times.  The book is rendered in numbered entries – some very short vignettes, that reflect the breadth of his experience and, overall, in combination, yield a satisfying portrait of Barnes’ professional life.

Barnes explains the concept of greatness in a sportsman, focusing much of his (same, same, same) analysis upon Steve Redgrave and extolling the exceptional rowers ability to go above and beyond his human traits.  But my goodness, does it get repetitive.  One feels like they have binged on Redgrave after each fifteen minute session reading the book.

The Meaning of Steve Redgrave. Possibly the working title for this book.

Barnes takes a personal axe and grinds it firmly against golf, which he detests upon the basis it’s not a ‘real sport’ if you smoke whilst doing it.  Such curious rationales pepper the text (have you ever seen Jordan Spieth asking the audience for a lighter at Augusta?  Or Tiger Woods shoving a cigarette box wrapper into his golf bag on the ninth?)  Boxing too, which Barnes objects to upon medical grounds, comes in for major criticism, but in a way that to me, is irresponsible.  A debate about boxing cannot just be ‘dropped into’ a book without proper consideration of both sides.  For this reader?  It’s lazy writing.

All in all though, what could have been a seminal and definitive book on sport, becomes merely a collection of thoughts clustered together in no meaningful way.  What could have been an important book is denied by bizarre editing and at times, free fall writing with scant regard for the reader, or proper structure.

Barnes’ writing takes us briefly through his career, and does involve some nice nudges to Sporting Moments.  He offers a list of fifty of the greatest sporting events of his life, and taking in that rundown does take one back to a ‘where was !?’ nostalgic platform.  It offers brief entertainment, but more crucial respite, from the books usual cloying tone.  Barnes gives us little of a behind the scenes glimpse of a sports writers life; disappointing from a writer of his calibre.  His philosophical musings on sport are just his opinion, and they are rendered in too shallow a way to command respect or resonance.

When the depth just ain’t there.

As controversial as this book gets is a truly saccharine ‘tribute’ to women. Not only is it beyond patronising, but Barnes actually cites the sleep deprivation of motherhood, as evidence of female ‘toughness’.  He alludes to the strength of women with fleeting mention of sporting greats such as Ellen MacArthur, but to turn to maternity in a book of this nature?  Yawn Yawn Yawn.

This book is not so offensive as to abandon it altogether.  Perhaps you could take it on a beach holiday and have it done in one sitting – if only to stimulate those memory banks about great sporting moments.  But if you’re looking for any kind of meaningful pontificating on sport, or sport reportage, there are many other books that should leap ahead in your reading list.

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