Searching questions in the ongoing desire for elusive perfection

Book review - Dean Goodison

The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection
The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection

What goes into making a sportsperson 'The Greatest'? There are so many facets to the answer that it's somewhat strange that so many people have an automatic response to the question of 'Who is the Greatest?' - Muhammad Ali.

In his new book, 'The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection', Matthew Syed states that it's 'unquestionable', it's Ali. But let's believe for a minute that people are intelligent enough to question the unquestionable; what factors should be considered when identifying greatness?

That's where this publication has its interesting parts. It's not an amazing, life-changing, epiphany-laden book but a nice collection of previously published work that bonded together makes an above-passable offering on the subject of sporting greatness.

'The Greatest' is split into five chapters. Syed opens with 'Building a Champion', looking at what needs to happen in the formative years to set a young athlete off on the path to greatness. 'The Volunteer' is an interesting subsection, and there are certainly many Brian Hallidays involved in grassroots sport in this country.

Winners can't be winners without 'The Mental Game'. Chapter two hones in on what makes a winning mind, arguably the most important component of a champion. The sub-section on the difference between the English and Welsh national football teams is telling and well contemplated.

The third chapter is titled 'On Beauty'. The two words that aptly sum up the gist of this section are 'Roger Federer'. Maybe the best set of sub-sections in the book, the one detailing his quality, and what makes him a different type of great from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is a superb read.

However, the most enthralling story in the book is not as well known as that of the trio of tennis greats. 'Inspiration' is a little personal for Syed, bringing him home to Reading to introduce Kelly Sibley and her mother Deni. It's heartbreaking but excellently written.

Politics can play a massive part in sports, and Syed examines how in 'The Political Game' in chapter four. There are several excellent pieces here but 'Discrimination', a eulogy to Emile Griffith, will have readers reaching for Donald McRae's 'A Man's World' to read the life story of the former champion boxer.

Finally, chapter five, simply titled 'Icons', is a weaker, snap-shot look at some of sport's great stars at some point in the last decade. Most, like Ali, are long retired, while others like Tiger Woods are still trying to complete a legacy.

The problem with 'The Greatest' is not the quality of the work within. Syed, as is evidenced throughout the publication, is a fantastic feature writer on sport and is a real asset for 'The Times' newspaper.

The problem is the meshing. The book contains articles written as one-offs, quality pieces of work that are shoehorned together, often uncomfortably, to fit into categories and form enough content to publish a book.

It's all a little cynical, profiteering on the back of Syed's previously respected works: 'Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice' and 'Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secret of High Performance'.

Is there a target audience for this book? The marketing is perfect: 'The Greatest', anyone who enjoys sport, the winning and losing, the building of careers, will see this and have a gander at the back cover. But look, put it back on the shelf for now. Have a Google of Syed's work and get a handle on his style. If you read up on his material and want to delve into a scattered collection of some of his best, then pick it up in The Book Centre when collecting next week's Wexford People.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best collection of sports books.

Wexford People