Reviewed by Mike Clarke
If anybody could be described as a living encyclopaedia of sport it would be Matthew Syed. A columnist and feature writer for The Times, he has twice won ‘Sports Journalist of the Year’ at The British Press Awards. He is a regular contributor to BBC programmes and a sportsman in his own right as the England table tennis number one for almost a decade. He also is a two time Olympian. Syed’s background in sports journalism is enhanced not only by his participation, but also by his graduation from Oxford University with a prize-winning First in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, all of which contribute to his ability to write on the science and the psychology of sport. In other words, the mental side of sport.
The Greatest is a collection of Matthew Syed’s columns over several years, edited from a remarkable two million words. Structuring the book in this way, allows Syed the freedom to classify his chapters into Building a Champion, The Mental Game, On Beauty, The Political Game and a final chapter, Icons. The text (being newspaper columns) is easy to read and is succinctly focused within the chapter whilst bringing several different examples to the fore. They are each variations on a theme.
‘Lifelong sports nuts’ will approach this book with a great deal of anticipation and will be pleasantly surprised by what they didn’t know about sport. Or, to be more precise, they will marvel at the discovery that their perceptions of sport were so superficial.
As Matthew Syed is at pains to explain in The Greatest, sport is more that kicking a ball backwards and forwards, riding a bike or even running. The mental side is his focus and, in particular, how this aspect can be manipulated for good and for evil.
It’s obvious that Syed has a wide ranging interest in sport as the subjects he addresses in his book range from a Chinese table tennis champion, to an English dart champion and all the way to his description of The Greatest, Mohammad Ali.
Ali receives a critical appraisal before the final accolade is apportioned. Syed describes how Ali initially cultivated the strain of Islam which demanded a separate state for blacks which placed him no different in philosophical terms from the views of the Ku Klux Klan.
This cultivation was by an extremist group the Nation of Islam, an anti-white religious group. (He later modified his views)
Syed explains the radicalisation of Ali, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky where the indignities of Jim Crow were a part of everyday life.
His radicalisation was complete when in 1955, he read about the murder of Emmett Till, a boy of the same age of Ali, who had been lynched for wolf whistling at a white shop assistant in Mississippi. Till’s body had been mutilated and an eye gouged from its socket. The two men charged with murder were acquitted by an all white jury in sixty-seven minutes. ‘If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken so long,’ one juror said.
From this perspective, Ali’s demonisation of whites can at least be understood, if not condoned. The Black Muslims may have had a similar ideology to the Klan on paper, but the historical context could not have been more different. The Klan wished to sustain a reign of hatred against blacks in the South. The anti-white racism of The Nation of Islam was more a cry for help, the vigilante response to an impotent and pitiful minority. (267)
Matthew Syed is an unabashed fan of many of his subjects. Roger Federer, one of his favourites, is frequently used as an example of the ‘art’ of sport and the dedication it takes to achieve greatness.
We live in a world where motivation is often conceptualised through the prism of money. If you want someone to persevere and be productive, give him the lure of a bonus. This is what you might call an external motivator. But the likes of Federer and Nicklaus hint at the idea that there is another form of motivation that underpins the most thrilling kind of longevity. It is not about external factors, but about the internal qualities of the game. The activity is a reward in itself. (64)
One of the finest chapters in the book was written whilst Syed spent the last two days of 2016 with the Tour de France cycle race in the Team Sky group. To win the race, the lead rider of the team, the Brit Chris Froome needed to hold his position as leader with a slender margin over his main rival on the final day of the Tour.
The Aussie rider Ritchie Porte was the key to Froome’s success as his job was to protect his leader to the podium. He nodded his head in agreement as the team Director Nicolas Portal stated,”The body is no longer willing. It is only the mind that keeps you going now”.
The writing takes you there and exposes the scenarios (what can go wrong and how to overcome the problem if a certain tactic does not work) of such a crucial part of the race. It is a brilliant piece of journalism and no doubt was instrumental in part in Matthew Syed’s winning the 2016 Sports Journalist of the Year Award.
Another stand out chapter, written in June 2007, is one in which Syed argues the case for one of his favourites, the occasion when Tony Blair overlooks David Beckham as a contender for the final awards list leading up to selections for a knighthood. Syed makes the comparison of the influence the two had on British culture during their ascendancy.
Beckham has undergone so many personal reinventions and image changes that he is a walking tribute to cosmopolitanism. He is someone who would be as comfortable in Soho as in Solihull , someone who could as happily spend his day pumping weights as prancing around shops in the fashion district, someone who is as revered by heterosexuals as homosexuals. This is someone who has changed the face of masculinity – and not only with his moisturisers.
No British sportsman of the past half century has exerted a more powerful or benign influence on Britain’s consciousness. While Blair was softening majority attitudes through the statute book – enacting civil partnerships, scrapping the ‘section 28’ prohibition on promoting homosexuality in schools, equalising the age of consent, reclassifying cannabis, opening the doors to immigrants from Eastern Europe – Beckham was softening those same attitudes through the potency of his persona. (177)
On a more serious note, we learn that Beckham wears his wife’s knickers!
Naturally, being a collection of columns from an English newspaper, the book has many references and examples of football and footballers with interesting insights into what makes the successful teams and players who and what they are. Many of the chapters are devoted to brilliant players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo etc. Other players, some not so well known, also feature. They are all players whose prowess this author admires greatly. Syed justifies his perception of their elevation to greatness only after a clinical appraisal of their talents and playing styles.
There is a wonderful example of how English football was for years entrenched in the belief that their methods were the best, ignoring the fact that the Brazilians had overtaken them in technique by allowing the players freedom to express themselves on the pitch rather than be constrained by rigid structures. Syed argues that footballers are treated as idiots off the field because of the way they are treated by coaches on the field, never being given the authority to improvise when the situation called for it.
This point appears to have been lost on current NRL coaches with their stringent game plans on the field which, if you to take Syed’s point, leads the players to improvise with the laws of the land off the field.
Corruption in sport is covered in Syed’s book. The first recorded example of match fixing was in 388 BC at the ancient Olympic Games when Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three boxers to throw fights against him. Nothing is new in corruption in sport; it’s just become more sophisticated. Naturally, Lance Armstrong makes an appearance in this section.
The final chapter Icons is a remarkable insight into the minds and lives of the sportsmen and women who in Syed’s opinion have achieved greatness. Illuminating columns on Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, boxers Emile Griffiths and Jake La Motta are the highlights.
How sport has to adapt to change has its parallels in everyday life and in this sense, The Greatest is not just a book about sport. Many of the examples which are used to justify Matthew Syed’s qualification for greatness demonstrate the ability to change and adapt in order to improve. Matthew Syed makes an interesting defence of the ever increasing use of sports technology. He claims that the millions spent improving the physical aspect of sport have a flow on effect in the way that this investment can improve the quality of life in the general population. The book is a manual for living a fruitful and fulfilling life. The lessons to be learnt are transportable to everyday life.
I recommend this book to anyone even with a passing interest in sport.Sports watching tends to be superficial; we see the game without having a true understanding as to the background of the talents of these elite athletes.
The Greatest should be required reading for coaches and administrators of any sport as well as anyone wishing to improve their lifestyle. It is not mandatory to achieve greatness, as that is the domain of the truly committed. But understanding how the great have achieved that lofty pinnacle is sure to have some benefits in everyday life.
By Matthew Syed