Body Politic:
The Great American Sports Machine

2004

Excerpt

In The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson analyzes how various writers, such as Dickens, Wharton, and Hemingway, used the central wound of their life as the major material of their art. Throughout her entire childhood, a writer I know worked fiendishly hard in the hope of becoming a professional ballet dancer, entering the Harkness Ballet trainee program at eighteen, but she left after less than a year. It’s only right that her first book, published a couple of years ago when she was in her mid-forties, is a collection of stories set in the world of ballet and her novel-in-progress is told from the point of view of George Ballanchine. In Rocky, asked what he sees in dowdy Adrian, Rocky says, “She fills gaps.” I was a great child-athlete and I just assumed this play-paradise would last forever. It didn’t. Writing about it fills gaps.

I wish I could say instead that the material I keep returning to is seventeenth century Flemish painting or the Cold War or the unified field theory, but it’s not. I keep coming back to sports, of all things. Much of what I write seems to feature an exceedingly verbal person contemplating an exceedingly physical person. I return over and over to the endlessly complex dialectic between body and mind. Whenever we talk about the body, we inevitably lie, but the body itself never lies. Our bodies always betray us—always tell us what we’re really feeling (desire, fear, hatred, rapture). The body-in-motion is, for me, the site of the most meaning. At a deep spot in the river, Howard Cosell showed me the way across; he showed me where to look and, looking, how to stand.

 

Awards

  • Named one of the best twenty-five books of the year by the Seattle Times

 

Reviews

“Sweeping insights . . . an intellectual tour de force.”–Steve Weinberg, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Shields is] one of the most necessary, if discomfiting, commentators on American sports today. . . . he patiently lays out the various elements of athletic myth that come wrapped seamlessly around other signature American obsessions.”–Chris Lehman, Washington Post

“[E]lucidates superbly the paradox of sports coverage: although feats of the body seem to defy language, sports is nonetheless ‘imprisoned by its prevailing rhetoric.’. . . Piercing essays . . .”–Daniel G. Habib, Sports Illustrated

“Like Charles Barkley, Shields is outspoken, controversial, and never dull.”–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In this remarkable book, Shields weaves personal anecdotes with examinations of individuals and trends in sports, particularly in regard to race, mass media, politics and history. Grade: A.”–James K. Yu, Portland Oregonian

“Shields does more than simply record wins and losses; he takes a serious look at how Americans view sports. Shields’s polished writing and his coverage of more significant matters than just a win–race relations, teamwork, etc.–are solid.”–Publishers Weekly