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book review

Muhammad Ali, left, and Joe Frazier fight in a 12-round non-title fight at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1974.The Associated Press

In his introduction to Something Like the Gods, Stephen Amidon crafts a passionate and lyrical canvas of a pantheon of athletic figures who have become transformed into celebrities, folk heroes and icons. This opening, nicely labelled The Façade, allows Amidon to engage readers with recollections of his first visit to Yankee Stadium, as a 10-year-old in 1969. In preparation, he had soaked up all the Yankees-related material collected in Great Moments in Baseball History. Pride of place goes to the account of "the hardest hit baseball in human history," slugged by Mickey Mantle on May 22, 1963. Although the ball was stalled by hitting the ornate façade that dominated the upper deck of the right-field stands, baseball aficionados swear it otherwise would have been the first-ever ball to leave the stadium in fair territory.

Then, as the years passed by and Amidon moved from boyhood to manhood, he was confronted by the shocking realization that Mantle was a flawed and damaged person, only able to survive because of his athletic skills. In real life, he was a womanizer, he drank to excess and he ridiculed his adoring fans. His personal life-jacket was "an elaborate façade of his own."

Amidon's literary prose style energizes his narrative. He is excited by the notion of a shaman becoming a showman, and the importance of those altered states of consciousness in which ordinary people do extraordinary things and effectively cast a spell over their audience. Among his examples are Michael Jordan's shot to win the 1998 NBA finals, Bob Beamon's soaring long jump, which seemed to defy gravity at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and Romanian Nadia Comaneci's performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, in which she earned seven perfect 10s – including the first ever awarded in an Olympic competition – and won gold medals in the all-around, beam and uneven bars competitions.

In ten chapters, Amidon takes his readers on a fascinating journey, beginning with the ancient Greek Olympic games (776 BC) and travelling through the era of King Henry VIII of England (Hampton Court as a medieval sports complex with tennis courts, bowling greens and a jousting arena), before focusing on an aging, battered yet resilient Muhammad Ali, staving off defeat to steal a heavyweight title from Joe Frazier in Manila.

In carrying out an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of god-like athletes, Amidon could have been overwhelmed by an excess of statistics and mountains of details. Happily, clever editing and a tight writing style gives his work the pace and precision of a well-engineered novel. But then, Amidon is best known as a novelist.

The chapter Mens Sano In Corpore Sano is buoyed up by an attractive blend of historical scholarship and great literature. Amidon is at home with Charles Kingsley (Westward Ho!) and Thomes Hughes (Tom Brown's School Days), and he acknowledges Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and its cynicism about the worship of athletics. His descriptive powers are considerable, and his word pictures often pitch perfect: "Teddy Roosevelt was the Henry VIII of his time, a strapping, boisterous polymath who loved to hunt, hike, row, and box."

Something Like the Gods has minor shortcomings. The selected bibliography deserves expansion, and several of the listed sources are outdated. Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic History (1841), as well as Joseph Campbell's insights into the creation of the hero in the modern world, would have facilitated a sharper theoretical analysis. Finally, academic journals, if selectively trawled, are a valuable resource. The Journal of Sport History would have given Amidon powerful additions to his book.

While Something Like the Gods does not qualify as spectacular sports history, the quality of Stephen Amidon's writing makes this book a first-class compendium of essays on the history of sport. This is a man with a poetic, compassionate pen. With Ali, he describes a "sick athlete" and a "fading man," poignantly remarking: "His victories and defeats marked the stages of our lives."

Scott A.G.M. Crawford is professor emeritus of kinesiology and sports studies at Eastern Illinois University.

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