Almost six years ago, the world of professional sports was rocked by numerous scandals involving performance enhancing substances and pro athletes in connection to Victor Conte and his BALCO Company in Los Angeles; including one Barry Bonds.
“Game of Shadows,” written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, successfully breaks down everything worth knowing in the BALCO case and does so in placing extreme emphasis on all of the big time players involved like Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Marion Jones and Victor Conte, creating a journalistic work of sheer masterpiece that every sports fan owes to themselves to read.
It’s rare in a work of non-fiction that such detail and emphasis is placed on the development of the characters in a story, but “Game of Shadows” gives readers a front-row seat to the entire BALCO scandal and trial, showing the transformation of Victor Conte from marijuana-smoking rocker to self-taught chemist who turned professional sports upside down in an attempt to create the perfect athlete.
Readers will also get an inside view of Barry Bonds from numerous different perspectives, showing how arrogance, insecurity and self-righteousness were always a part of the sluggers life and how it turned an already eventual Hall-of Fame career into one that will forever be tarnished amongst historians and fans alike for years to come.
The views and perceptions of the people depicted are so deep and well developed in “Game of Shadows” that one cannot help but become attached to all of the characters involved, feeling pity for someone like Sheffield, who according to the book, was a victim of both stupidity and loyalty, trusting Bonds and taking whatever pills and substances he gave him, before eventually finding out he was taking illegal substances.
Going even deeper into the case, Fainaru-Wada and Williams also tell the stories of the authorities that played such a huge role in breaking the case open like Jeff Novitzky and Dr. Don Catlin, eventually making a non-fiction work feel more like a mystery novel or an episode of CSI, compelling the reader with every single turn of the page.
While the story pays heavy attention to Bonds, it does shift attention periodically to the world of Track and Field, the NFL and Body Building, where Conte became known as the “Little man with the black bag.” In doing so, “Game of Shadows” breaks tremendous barriers in linking the same man to corruption in various different sports, making it a suitable read for the non-baseball fan as well.
The hard work and persistence Fainaru-Wada and Williams have shown, in bringing as many diverse sources as possible to add their voices to the book not only allows the reader to take different voices into consideration so they may come up with their own conclusions about the case, it also adds uncanny realism and legitimacy, making it a must-read.
Simply put, “Game of Shadows” is a work of genius that every aspiring investigative journalist should read. Fainaru-Wada and Williams are arguably this generations Woodward and Bernstein, unraveling a case that almost ruined professional sports throughout the entire world.
Patrick Hickey Jr.
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