The Books Briefing: The Dark Side of Athletic Perfection

Technical optimization seems to be threatening the humanity of sports—but moments of passion still peek through: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A series of freeze-frames of a gymnast performing a flip
Bettmann / Getty

Baseball, like many sports, sometimes seems as though it’s leaving the realm of human athleticism and instead marching toward an almost technical optimization. Steroids (illicitly taken) have made some players stronger than ever. Sabermetrics, which involves the detailed statistical analysis of baseball data, has turned the artistry of staffing a team into mere mathematics, a phenomenon that the author Michael Lewis writes about in Moneyball. Even players’ skills are best honed through technical means, the writers Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik contend in The MVP Machine.

Such innovation is a far cry from the extreme technical limitations facing early sports stars, especially women. Charlotte Dod, a multisport athlete in the Victorian era, was forced to wear cumbersome outfits while competing—a dynamic that the journalist Sasha Abramsky explores in Little Wonder. Women’s sports remain underfunded to this day, but more devoted training (along with more reasonable attire) has allowed athletes of all genders to reach heights that early competitors, such as Dod, were never able to approach. Dvora Meyers’s history of modern gymnastics, The End of the Perfect 10, traces the development of the sport from a time when a 10 was an impossible score to achieve to an era in which trained gymnasts so unfailingly conduct flawless routines that a new, uncapped scoring system had to be introduced.

The pursuit of such perfection, of course, comes with its own challenges. The novelist Gabe Habash explores the mental and physical toll on athletes in Stephen Florida, which follows a college wrestler’s slow demise. And beyond its risks for individual players, some people believe that the quest for optimization threatens the joy of the games themselves. For example, the writer Eduardo Galeano’s love for soccer is palpable in Soccer in Sun and Shadow—as is his fear that technocratic standardization is encroaching on passionate play. Still, as Galeano himself saw, glimpses of athletic elation peek through even the most technically incredible performances, revealing a spirited and unmistakably human greatness.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a pitcher

Golden Cosmos

The new science of building baseball superstars

“Would democratizing baseball greatness actually be good for baseball? Part of what makes baseball’s greatest players so memorable is how much better they are at playing the game than anyone else on the field. In important ways, the sport’s drama relies on inequality.”

Charlotte Dod

Illustration by Paul Spella; image from PA Images / Alamy

In search of the first female sports superstar

“If [Sasha] Abramsky’s biography [of Charlotte Dod] feels rather slight, it is because he refuses to co-opt her into an uplifting parable of women’s liberation. Instead, he celebrates her as a brave and talented and determined original.”

illustration of gymnasts over the number ten

Cristiana Couceiro; Express / Getty; Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty

The athleticism of competitive gymnastics

“An obsessive and illusory perfectionism may lie at the heart of many girls’ dreams of being a gymnast, but so does a more primal urge, the desire to just see if you can—or, as one former gymnast puts it in [Dvora] Meyers’s book, to get as close to flying as possible.”

two wrestlers compete

Turkmenistan’s Tahir Hanmamedov (left) competes against Syria’s Mazen Kdmane at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, in 2010. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Stephen Florida reveals the dark toll of athletic greatness

“[Gabe] Habash questions not only the true cost of achieving athletic greatness, but also how masculinity—defined in part by vengefulness, violence, and stoicism—can drive men to behave in self-glorifying and self-defeating ways.”

soccer fans

Uruguay fans in Montevideo in June 2018 (Andres Stapff / Reuters )

What Eduardo Galeano, soccer’s poet laureate, understood about the sport

“Soccer, in Galeano’s vision of it, isn’t just a war between teams or countries: It’s also a war between humanity and technocracy.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is A Burning, by Megha Majumdar.

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