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Venus Williams Takes Lessons From Welch, Branson: Sports Books

"Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture" by Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann. Source: Princeton University Press via Bloomberg

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group Ltd., played soccer, rugby and cricket. Jeff Zucker, departing chief executive officer of NBC Universal, played competitive junior tennis. Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons Hotels, played pond hockey, with magazines pressed into service for shin pads and rocks for goalposts.

Though these leaders succeeded in other fields, they took enduring lessons from the sports of their youth.

“Come to Win” (Amistad, $25.99), edited by Venus Williams, is an engaging collection of stories about how corporate battles were won on the playing fields of youth. I hadn’t thought of Williams as an entrepreneurial adviser. But she was, after all, reared on family meetings that began with questions like: “Why is it that the poor person stays in the ghetto and the rich person gets richer?”

Her advice comes from leaders who are masters of the power game, but the lessons are for us all.

“It’s not so much about being the first to do something,” Branson says. “It’s training for it and trying to see what your body is capable of, whether you mentally can cope with it.”

Meg Whitman, former head of EBay Inc. and candidate for governor of California, played field hockey, basketball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and tennis. “No individual,” she says, “is as important as the team.”

But the best story comes from former Salem High hockey player (and General Electric Co. chief) Jack Welch, who threw his stick across the ice after a tough overtime loss. His mother marched into the locker room with an unforgettable lesson: “If you don’t know how to lose, you’ll never know how to win.”

‘Lost Cyclist’

In David V. Herlihy’s “The Lost Cyclist” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), we meet Frank Lenz, an all-but-forgotten American adventurer who dreamed of bicycling 20,000 miles around the world in the early 1890s, only to meet a mysterious death two years into his trip.

Lenz was an ingenious type, as cyclists often are; he figured out a way to photograph himself while riding and to deploy a special umbrella when it rained on his custom-made nickel-plated bike with its elongated leather saddle and special springs. He didn’t, however, figure on the dangers posed by other humans, some of whom may have wanted to rob him, some of whom almost certainly murdered him.

Herlihy’s book is a travelogue, a whodunit -- and a chase story, for before long the fabled biker William Sachtleben is dispatched to Turkey to find Lenz. He comes up with a theory -- but this is a thriller that ends with a mystery, unsolved to this day.

‘Gaming the World’

In “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture” (Princeton University Press, $29.95), Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann of the University of Michigan argue that sports have emerged “as a powerful force of political and cultural change around the globe.” They set forth a number of provocative notions growing out of the internationalization of sports stars and the globalization of soccer (the result, they smartly argue, of Britain’s reach in the 19th century).

By far the most intriguing element of this volume is its explanation of how and why American collegiate sports emerged as economic and social engines, not only on campus but also around the country. They trace how American college sports began in the British mold -- student-run productions, with all the amateurism that suggests -- and evolved into big-business operations run by professionals.

College sports thus became agents of product differentiation. All that rah-rah-rah and razzamatazz is really about branding.

“Sports programs, particularly as represented by a college’s football team, lent universities their distinct markers,” they write, “and gave them a brand identity that none of their other activities could even vaguely approximate.”

Finally -- a connection between the gridiron and the grad schools.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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