There's nothing as endearing or as irritating as an academic in the grip of an enthusiasm. Allen Guttman -- who teaches at Amherst and is the author of a number of books on sports history, has set out to make us acknowledge the erotic element in sports for those who like to play as well as those who just like to watch.
Guttman is on firm ground insisting on the presence of the erotic in athletics, though to do it he has to go up against some formidable cultural bugaboos -- homophobia that wants to deny the beauty of male athletes and feminist nonsense about the rapacious male gaze that wants to deny the sexuality of female athletes. But rather than navigate the minefields he's outlined, Guttman plays the dull-as-dishwater academic, marshaling his sources, citing them one after another in tedious chronological detail, and purging almost any trace of passion.
What's worse is that Guttman hasn't figured out the contradictions in his own arguments. He admits to the feelings of inadequacy that can vex men who don't measure up to athletic standards, but he treats the move to shift the emphasis of gym classes from competition to fitness as if it were so much PC nonsense. (He never wonders how many kids were turned off by the jocks-versus-wimps competitiveness of gym class.)
The pity of all this is that when Guttman does get personal, he can be very engaging. There's a spirited reading of Robert Towne's "Personal Best" (the best film ever made about the athletic experience) that cuts through all the misreadings of that film (even if Guttman does get a crucial plot detail wrong). And he's wonderful on the now-forgotten gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva, whom he treats as the goddess she was: "the Russian athlete's extraordinary strength and regal grace... [marks] the moment when robustly beautiful young women like [her] were about to be replaced by anorexic children... a bewitched anthropologist and an enthralled historian both described [Tourischeva] as a woman endowed with a 'disturbing' sexual attractiveness... For me, as well, she remains an unusually vivid personification of Eros and sports." How can you succumb like that and still write a book about sports and sex that never breaks a sweat?