Monday 1 June 2009

Who's boss?

It's fair to say that much of the best sports writing is American. They take it more seriously for a start, and they have a vast but self-contained canvas. The cream of it is in a wonderful book, The Best American Sports Writing Of The Century. The stuff inside is so good, it's kind of irrelevant whether you like the sports they're writing about, or even whether you like sport. 

There's Al Stump on his near-death experiences with the twisted, quite possibly insane baseball genius Ty Cobb, J.R. Moehringer's astonishing story on a boxer's identity, Resurrecting The Champ, Paul Solotaroff's The Power And The Gory, about bodybuilder Steve Michalik ['It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first'], Thomas McGuane's obsessive pursuit of an uncatchable fish called a Permit, and much, much more.

The final section is devoted to Muhammad Ali, the defining sportsman of the century and - uncoincidentally - its most accessible. George Plimpton once recounted a story of travelling to Ali's house for a Sports Illustrated cover piece and waiting his turn for an hour because Ali was giving an interview to the local school newspaper. Ali was world champion at the time. 

All of which is a long-winded way of getting round to Sunday's Observer Sport Monthly and its 'Ashes Special'. It was a very modern piece of journalism. On the cover were Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen putting on suits. On the inside front cover and facing page was a double page ad for Hugo Boss suits featuring Steve Harmison, James Anderson, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar.

The story itself saw the OSM journalist granted access to, er, the England team's fitting for their Hugo Boss suits. Inbetween taking off their trousers, they offered a few words. A very few. The journalist even noted how keen some of them were to disappear. In case anyone missed the point, all of the pictures featured the players trying on their Hugo Boss suits, and carried the caption 'All clothes and shoes by Hugo Boss. Call 020 7544 5700 for details'.

This is 21st century sports writing: controlled access for a commercial return. Who, apart from Hugo Boss, gains from the arrangement? Not the readers, and ultimately not the players. Part of the resentment towards them comes from the shield that keeps them from the world. It just seems strange, and sad, that in an age of so much media, we know conversely less about them. 

Ali's greatness was apparent in his boxing, but it was enhanced and contextualised by the people who wrote about him. He trusted them to know what to put in and what to leave out [he was given a free pass, for example, about his womanising]. That same relationship was true of the old-school cricket writers and players like Botham and Boycott, yet we have much fuller portraits of them than we do of Pietersen or Ponting. Something that added to the fabric of the game is being lost. 

On the plus side though, Hugo Boss will be pleased. That's 020 7544 5700 if you're interested.

1 comment:

Ceci said...

Appalling IPL-style journalism in that article - sponsors mentioned throughout; although I must report that there were quite a few favourable comments on it from friends on facebook....but we may just have been looking at the pictures.... except for the Cookettes who were not best pleased by their hero's pic