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.
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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
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."
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.