He writes, he scores!

The sports page is a showcase for great writing. But TV and athletes' 'star' status are changing the craft - just witness the Olympics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sportswriters, ready your pens.

After the torch is lit at the Olympic Opening Ceremony tomorrow night, memories of the Super Bowl will quickly fade (except maybe in New England). And those charged with bearing witness to an international game's drama - its skill, its intensity, its national relevance - will face their own defining moment of competition.

The blitz is coming. Newspapers and broadcasters are pouring resources into Olympic-sized stories. And while their audience may lack familiarity with the rules of luge or the competitors in snowboarding, that's the challenge for the scribes. For many sportswriters, it is a chance for their work to reach those who have never laced a

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skate or swooshed through a snowy forest - people who typically use the sports section to line the birdcage.

"A lot of people who don't read the sports pages, read them now," says John Powers, Olympics writer for the Boston Globe. "More women watch the Olympic Games than do men," he adds.

More inky hands means more opportunity for sports reporting to buck its reputation as a lesser form of journalism - and for readers to evaluate criticism suggesting that modern sports coverage is lacking in both heart and women.

The Olympics may skew that a bit - given that in recent years coverage of the Games has broken away from traditional sports reporting in an effort to bolster interest in amateur athletes and attract women. It has become more about athletes' personal stories and their quest for fulfillment than about winning a medal, say those who cover it.

But readers who stick around during and after the Games might nonetheless learn something about a genre whose blue-collar origins once kept it out of the literary mainstream, but which can now be found in magazines like Esquire, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.

Having survived the early part of the century, when theater critics reviewed sporting events, sports writing has gone on to attract names like Hemingway and Halberstam, and has even won a handful of Pulitzer Prizes.

"There's a great tradition of sportswriting," says Allison Glock, a regulator contributor to GQ magazine. "Plimpton did it. Mailer did it. Those guys are not hacks."

To those who love it, sports writing offers all the right ingredients: drama; a winner and loser; controversial characters. It's all about telling a good story - through good writing.

"If you can't write well about sports, I don't think you can write well about anything," says longtime sports journalist Frank Deford. "Sports provides more good material for writers than any other subject."

David Halberstam, for example, left daily journalism in the 1960s, after reading an article by Gay Talese in Esquire about retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio. "That one piece, it struck me, was worth everything I had written in the past year," he writes in the introduction to "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century."

No fear here

Today, much of that style of writing still occurs in magazines, where writers have more space than their newspaper counterparts to spin the tales of missed Olympic opportunities and the hopes of fathers. And they aren't afraid to take risks - evoking the Bible and poetry to make their stories more entertaining.

Whether they are aspiring writers, or just fans trying to get closer to the action, more people seem to be giving the craft a try these days. Newsstands are bursting with magazines about every sport from golf to skateboarding. And the Internet is the new watering hole for fans, with publications and teams themselves online.

"The Web has completely changed how much sports information you can get," says Edward Prewitt, a sports fan in Concord, Mass. "If I didn't have a job, I could spend all day reading the stuff."

The Web is also having an effect on the presentation of sports writing. ESPN The Magazine falls into that category, with its splashy graphics and edgy writing style. Though its approach turns some readers off, the four-year-old publication - sibling to the No. 1 sports website, ESPN.com, and the cable networks - has quickly attracted 1.5 million subscribers. That's about half the regular readers of veteran Sports Illustrated, whose subscriber base has held steady at about 3 million over the past decade.

Though it draws mixed reviews now, Sports Illustrated helped move sports reporting beyond a working-class diversion, with thoughtful pieces by writers like George Plimpton and Roy Blount Jr.

That kind of writing is less abundant in American journalism thanks to TV, argues Mr. Deford. A defender of the need for humanity in sports reporting, he says it used to be easier to pitch interesting stories about a third-string quarterback, for example. Now the famous guys get all the coverage. "We've become, in some respects, a handmaiden to television," says Deford, a commentator for National Public Radio and Sports Illustrated.

Sportswriters say that over the years, a number of things in addition to TV have influenced how they do their jobs - things they often spoof in columns and articles. While at one time athletes and reporters were able to strike up relationships, more often now the athletes, whose salaries have zoomed well past those of the people writing about them, view sportswriters as a hindrance rather than a help.

"It's become more and more adversarial" says Gene Collier, who left sports writing a few years ago to become a general columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He quit, he says, in part because "there seemed to be an incredible sense of entitlement among the athletes. They bring this sense that they've always been the center of attention, and they always will be, and that's how the culture should work."

The more, the messier

Another problem is the sheer mass of people now seeking access to athletes, making it tougher than it once was to get the interviews reporters need - and making events feel more managed and stale.

"For members of the press - who are seated around an elevated authority figure, cannot speak until called upon, and wear their names on cards hung from their necks - the press conference resembles in every way a third-grade classroom, only with dumber questions," quipped Sports Illustrated columnist Steve Rushin last year.

Two of the most difficult places to report are the Super Bowl and the Olympics, say Deford and others. At this year's Olympics, there are 3,000 members of the print media and 6,000 representatives of broadcast media from around the world who are credentialed.

One thing that has changed is the presence of women among those hordes. The number of women columnists and writers has increased since the 1970s, but is still not large, with the good ones often scooped up by TV, observers say. Women encounter fewer problems with sexism and access to players than they did in the '70s and '80s, and are now regularly in locker rooms and press boxes.

"I've never had a problem. Of course, I dress in lingerie," jokes Ms. Glock, who has written on sports for GQ and ESPN, and has been featured in "The Best American Sports Writing." "As far as access goes, it's been really easy, in fact I think it's probably an advantage to be a chick. There's not a set of expectations that precede you."

Even so, some observers argue that mainstream sports magazines don't tackle women's sports regularly. "None of those magazines are badly written. But if you're looking for precise reporting about women's sports, it's not there," says Jennifer Crispen, an associate professor of physical education at Sweet Briar College.

That won't be a problem at the Winter Olympics, where the figure skaters alone will up the quotient of women discussed. Sports writers differ on whether more people actually read during the heavily televised Olympics, but they do not deny that the games are geared toward women.

It will be the first Olympics for veteran Arizona Republic sports reporter Paola Boivin. Like others, she has had to read up on unfamiliar Olympic sports. She says it makes sense that journalists do more profiling of the athletes and their stories during the Olympics, because they are involved in sports that few readers know.

"I don't think during the course of the year people are reading about who won the skeleton [similar to bobsledding]," she says. But once the Olympics are here, "they are caught up in the spirit and faces behind it."

• E-mail campbellk@csps.com

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