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The best books on The Spirit of Sport

recommended by Tanni Grey-Thompson

The 11 times gold medal-winning Paralympian athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson, now a peer in Britain’s House of Lords, tells us about the spirit and legacy of the Olympics. She picks books on "the spirit of sport."

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What made you want to play sports when you were younger?

I was an incredibly competitive child, and sports was in my family. My Dad played a lot of sport and my mum watched a lot of it. I don’t remember a point when it wasn’t part of everything I did.

What sports did you play?

I swam, did archery, tennis – a bit of everything really.

When did you realise you had a chance of competing at the Paralympics?

It was when I was about 18 years old. Although I was getting better and better, and I was on the senior squad, at that age you don’t know until quite late on if you will be part of the team or not. I ended up going to my first Paralympic Games when I was 19.

You have competed in so many different competitions over the years – what was your favourite?

The Sydney Games [in 2000]. I did well there, which always helps. It was a lot of fun and the organisation was good. Also, there was a real passion for sports in Australia.

Let’s have a look at your first book choice, Mihir Bose’s The Spirit of the Game.

I remember watching sport from a very young age. One of the Olympics which stood out for me was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It was beset by politics and the boycotts from various Eastern Bloc countries. I suppose it was my first introduction to sports and politics together. One of the things Mihir’s book does is to explore that idea.

For those who might not have come across him, who is Mihir Bose?

He is a former BBC journalist and a print journalist. I have read a huge amount of what he has written in the sports pages. He writes about everything around sport.

What does he mean by the spirit of the game?

It is partly a history of sport but it also goes into the boycotts as well. The title of the book attracted me first and foremost. On the front cover are people like Ben Johnson, Maradona and Muhammad Ali. All these people, in different ways, have been quite controversial in sports. Mihir goes into the history of sports, talks about its origins and then looks at where we are now in terms of money and celebrity and so on.

How does he think the spirit of sports has changed?

He links it to some of the seedier sides of sport, such as cheating and drugs. You don’t have to love sports to read this book. Instead, it gives you a very interesting back-story to the world of sport. I did sports to start off with because I enjoyed playing them, but then you realise that there is even more politics surrounding sports than there is in politics – as demonstrated by things like the boycotts at the LA Olympics, or all the cheating.

Your next choice, Paralympic Heroes by Cathy Wood, shows that despite Mihir Bose’s misgivings the spirit of sport lives on in some competitions.

This book is like the antidote to my first choice. Cathy has written about the Paralympics, which is obviously close to my heart, and the stories of some of the people who have been involved in it. One of the things that was important to me when [London was] bidding for the games was about getting more athletes known. I wanted to get more names out there. The public watch because they like you and they want to support you, so it is important to get more of us known.

How did the Paralympics come about?

It was started in the UK by a chap called Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a doctor at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The first organised athletic event for disabled athletes took place on the day of the opening of the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, and was hosted by Guttmann. If you broke your back in the 1940s your life expectancy, if you were lucky, was about seven years and you were pretty much left in hospital to die. Obviously, that was not great. But with the Second World War there were just too many people coming back injured to be able to leave them in hospital. So Ludwig decided to use sports as a method of rehabilitation, partly just to get people out. He wanted to get them fit and healthy and back into their own community, and very quickly he realised that people were competitive. The view was that if you broke your back you obviously wouldn’t be competitive. But that is nonsense. Guttmann turned the whole attitude to disability on its head.

Why do you think Great Britain does so well in the Paralympics?

Because we like sports! The Paralympics is growing, and there still aren’t as many countries competing at them compared with the Olympics – which probably has something to do with why Britain wins so many medals. A country that has no social programmes for disabled people is unlikely to send anyone to the Paralympics, but that is something we are trying to change.

And it is changing people’s perceptions of disability.


Cathy Wood interviews a range of athletes with amazing personal stories – which one struck you as particularly compelling?

I will pick Margaret Maughan because she is the original Paralympian. She won the first gold medal in 1960. At that time she was a 32-year-old domestic science teacher, who had been paralysed in a car accident in Malawi in 1958. Then she took up archery and went on to win the gold medal. I met her a while ago and she told me about meeting Guttmann. People might think that Guttmann was a lovely, kind, gentle man but apparently he was a bit of a tyrant, which I think is quite cool. It is funny how history paints people differently. Margaret was one of the first women to come through doing sports, and I think Guttmann didn’t allow people to sit around feeling sorry for themselves, which in turn helped her to succeed.

Next up is Tim Harris’s book, which explores the different elements that make up sport.

I know lots about the sports that I like, but I am pretty rubbish at anything else. I always want to know more. This book gives you the rules of different games. In Britain we always think we are better than everyone else at sports because we invented them, before everyone else took them on. And this book is another history of sport. With it, you can go into any room full of sports fans and pretend you know loads and loads about sport.

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So it is useful if you are meeting someone who likes a particular sport.

Yes. For example, my grandfather was a professional motorcycle rider so I can find out all about motor racing. The book talks about so many different types of sport, like Formula One, and it also talks about the politics of sport. I suppose it sits along Mihir’s book in that respect. You have a bit about feminism in sport, and votes to exclude women. You can find out about the war between football and rugby, or anything from American football to how cricket works at county level. It is a massive, chunky book with lots of information.

The British author and journalist David Miller has written a comprehensive, three-part series on the history of the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee. Why did the games start again in Athens in 1896?

There was a French aristocrat called Pierre de Coubertin who had been to a multisport event in Much Wenlock in Great Britain and claimed part of the inspiration for the modern Olympics. De Coubertin decided to create his own event, which was all about bringing people together. There was some of this idea of the peaceful nature of sport.

Which goes back to the Olympian idea in ancient Greece?

Yes – you come and represent your nation and your country. In the early years they had sports like tug of war.

How do you think the games have changed over the years?

To the athlete it is still about winning and losing, and wearing your national tracksuit with pride. But it has turned into a massive brand as well. But for an athlete, if your sport is at the Olympics it is still the highest level you can compete at.

What does London hope to achieve as the host city this summer?

I think it will be the best Paralympics that we will ever see, because we love sport so much. We are good at organising things, designing things and making things happen. And we are good at detail in the UK. I think we will do a really good job of hosting it for the millions of people who will come to Britain and have a great time watching sport.

Do you think that the British public are getting behind it?

Yes – you only need to look at the torch relay. They were eight people deep along the road. And at Cheltenham racecourse there were 16,000 people. I have been involved in sport and it is a big part of my life, but I think we always had to get into 2012. It is hard for the public to maintain the excitement five years out from the Games. You want it to build, and you want people to be in London and to enjoy it, which I think they are starting to do.

Finally you have chosen How Parliament Works by Robert Rodgers and Rhodri Walters.

This is one of my other bibles. I read lots and although I like fiction I also read factual books which I learn from. So this is my bible of what you can and can’t do in parliament – how the place works and its rules. But it’s written for people outside parliament as well as inside.

You became a life peer in 2010 – was it very hard to understand how it all worked initially?

Yes, and it is so important to know the rules. It is a bit like in sports: You need to know every single rule so you can try to win. There is no point doing really well and then getting disqualified because you weren’t aware of some rule. In the House of Lords we have loads of rules for everything, and it is very hard because some of them aren’t even written down. It can be an awful lot to take in when you first arrive.

Does anyone help you with it?

There is a bit of help, but it is a real challenge because you can’t learn all the rules in one day. It is like telling a 15 year old: “Do a bit of archery for a while and then next week we are going to compete in the Olympic final.” For me, this book was a bit of a life-saver really. It helped me learn the right questions to ask. It is written by people who work there, so they really know what is going on. But there are far drier books on the subject – this one is actually very readable.

How have you been able to use your role in the House of Lords to help the spirit of sport in Great Britain?

I have taken part in quite a few political debates. I have been involved in the Olympic and Paralympic Amendment Bill, and the Sunday Trading Bill which is about games’ times. It is interesting to be able to talk about it from the political standpoint, but then say: “I have been to various Paralympic Games, and this is why I think we should do this.” That is what the House of Lords is about – bringing all those personal experiences.

Is there anything you are particularly pleased about that you have managed to get changed?

Night-time delivery in London. It is not terribly exciting, but it is really important that we were able to temporarily change the law to allow shops and restaurants to have night-time deliveries to free the roads up in the day. There were some objections, but I was there to say, “I know what it is like and this is why we need to do it”. It is a little victory but quite a nice one.

How do you personally view the Olympics and Paralympic Games? Is there anything in particular you are hoping will happen?

I just want people to have a really good time and watch some amazing sport.

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What about the legacy?

I think the legacy is a massive one for debate. Anyone involved in sport is responsible for the legacy. There is not one person or organisation who can tackle it. It is way more than which football club plays in the main stadium. It is about how we get young people involved in sport and staying in sport. The legacy is important, and we all have to play a part in making sure it happens.

May 30, 2012

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Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is a gold medal-winning British Paralympian athlete. She was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. In total she has won 16 Paralympic medals, 11 of them gold. She has now retired from her sporting career, is a TV presenter and a life peer in the House of Lords

Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is a gold medal-winning British Paralympian athlete. She was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. In total she has won 16 Paralympic medals, 11 of them gold. She has now retired from her sporting career, is a TV presenter and a life peer in the House of Lords