A witness to change - 40 years of olympic reporting


By Neil Allen
For the Olympic games at Atlanta in 1996 the total number of writing press and photographers was 5,000. Yes, 5,000... Plus no less than another 10,000 radio and television accredited representatives.

For the centennial Olympic games at Atlanta in the summer of 1996 the total number of writing press and photographers was 5,000. Yes, 5,000... Plus no less than another 10,000 radio and television accredited representatives. More than 15,000 men and women not competing in any event, not even paying spectators. Simply there because they were needed by the multi million dollar media organisations for which many of them worked, to report and record what has been called The Greatest Show on Earth.

Yet just over 40 years ago, at the Melbourne Summer Olympics of 1956, my very first as a reporter, the whole of the accredited media of every kind numbered no more than 938. According to the Melbourne Official Olympic Report this was broken down as 589 foreign press, 98 international news agency reporters, 97 broadcasters, 79 Australian press and 75 overseas photographers.

Indeed, we were such a cosy family that when Chris Brasher won the 3,000 metres steeplechase gold medal for Britain the "whole of the British athletics press" present each bought him a gin and tonic in celebration, the morning of the day on which he was to receive his medal. Luckily for Chris, as he himself recalls, there were only 13 of us sent to Melbourne by our papers for the track and field so he was only three-quarters drunk when he mounted the podium. If it had been Atlanta, with dozens of British reporters in the athletics stadium, sometimes three, plus a photographer, from a single newspaper, Brasher would have ended up in an alcoholic coma.

But then, sadly, the friendly relationship which the press had with Olympic competitors in Melbourne, and at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 was no longer often possible by the 1990s.

The rise of television and the professional sports champion
By the late Seventies the long awaited opportunity to earn money as a sports champion brought about the necessary demise of the old fashioned amateur sports code so rigidly applied by the middle and upper class British officials who were, for good and for ill, the main architects of modern international sport.

But this welcome, long overdue wind of change also saw the advent of sports agents keen not only on commercially marketing their stars but also on selling "exclusive" press stories.

Television, especially live TV coverage of major events, has undoubtedly boosted both the image of sport and the bank balances of some national and international federations. In Britain we currently face the problem of many so called national heritage events, like international football and rugby, becoming unavailable to the general viewing public because they have been bought up by subscriber companies like SkyTV also eager to explore pay per view. Britain's new Government is considering legislation to safeguard some of the most popular events.

On the other hand TV coverage has motivated newspaper sports editors to send their reporters overseas to cover football, tennis and boxing where the very best competitors, not necessarily from their own country, were involved. Including the recent gimmick of Olympic sprint champions Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson in a head to head race which ended in anti-climax and bitter words.

Overall there can be no argument that television has done far more to change and shape the way the public thinks about international sport than anything published in newspapers, magazines or books. In the past few years television's exclusive ability to get right inside the action, of slow motion replays and almost instant on the stage interviews, greatly aided by TV's capacity to pay big money for coverage rights, has put pressure on the written media.

The downgrading of written sports journalism
Sadly, for the written press, certainly in my country, Britain, the temptation has been for young reporters to move away from providing information first, and then comment second, to their readers. What seems to matter most, to many sports desks, in radio as well as newspapers, is whether one has got a "big quote" from the new champion or even the loser - especially if what has been said has not been reported on television.

This downgrading of our trade is not unique to Britain.

In the United States, for example, I recall the boxing writer of one of the very few national American publications being told that he could only cover a Mike Tyson world title fight overseas if he could guarantee an exclusive interview with Tyson. In the event, Tyson lost that Tokyo fight, in the upset of the century, to James Buster Douglas. What happened in the ring proved far more important than what anyone said, and yet the paper did not have its staff man present at ringside.

The British love reading newspapers of all kinds as one can tell from the current circulations of our Sunday and daily newspapers - extraordinary figures for a nation of no more than 60 million also served by five live TV terrestrial channels. Peter Stothard, editor of The Times, which is currently averaging 730,000 a day, reports that our serious or broad sheet newspapers have risen in total circulation by more than 150,000 for the third year running, compared with a drop of 134,000 for the five British tabloids though these still sell many millions.

Though we do not have a sports daily, we offer the widest possible range of newspapers, with far less adherence to conformity than the French or German press, and have several outstanding writers on sport. So is Britain, then, a wonderful world for the serious sports reporter? Ironically not, according to some journalists I meet now, mostly younger than me. They feel depressed by the cult of the columnist which can mean, as happened recently with one "serious" British newspaper which sent two star sports columnists to a heavyweight world title fight in Las Vegas but not the actual boxing correspondent.

It is regrettable that there should be any decline in the best kind of daily newspaper specialist sports reporters equally ready, in their knowledge, honesty and enthusiasm, to uphold the standards of giants of the past like Gaston Meyer, Robert Pariente and Michel Clare of L'Equipe, Torsten Tegner of Idrottsbladet, Willy Meisl of Austria and Red Smith of the New York Times.

One of the main problems is that the increasingly fierce battle for circulation and profit amongst both mass and elite readership newspapers has led to increasing pressure on virtually all British journalists. Some fear of loss of employment is there, too, now that the National Union of Journalists, to which I have belonged for 45 years, no longer has the same power to protect its members.

Even at national newspaper level there is a growing tendency to take on very young, inexperienced men and women at short notice (sometimes only three months) contracts so they work without any confidence, have little responsibility and can be fired very easily. In our industry we lag behind the employment rights of many of our European colleagues.

But still I remain basically optimistic, taking encouragement from those years when I travelled to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Australia, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Korea, Zaire, India, Turkey and Yugoslavia. I travelled, watched, reported and listened. And became convinced, as I continue to believe today, that Sport gives pleasure to millions who participate as a break from the pressures of earning a living, that it is of equal if more spontaneous joy to millions of young boys and girls whose very first smile can come from rolling or pushing a ball before they have learned to walk or talk. And that its greatest heroes and heroines can provide a stimulus, a feeling of well being, of human potential.

From Olympic to wider coverage
Looking back to my first 20 years as a journalist I realise I went through a change of heart about the Olympics - becoming a little cynical about what seemed to be the International Olympic Committee's detachment from reality, especially when IOC president Avery Brundage was ready to stage the 1968 Mexico City Olympics at high altitude even at the risk of damaging the health of those not used to competing in oxygen starved air.

When the world's politicians began to use the Olympics as an easy way of applying boycotts rather than through trade it was the poor young competitors who lost the chance of a lifetime to represent themselves and their country. I shall never forget, for example, the tragic figures of those young Kenyans athletes who were forced by their leaders to drop out of the Games of l976 in Montreal and then Moscow in l980 for entirely different but equally specious reasons.

In reaction I became much more involved, emotionally as well as professionally, in club, national, European and world championships in athletics, in less publicized but vibrant sports like rowing, judo and swimming, in the great team game of 15 a side rugby football and, right from the time as a nine year old when I first put on the gloves, in boxing.

Now I know that professional boxing might not have very high moral or medical standards. But for me it still produced marvellous individualists, supremely self reliant winners like Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler, Africa's Dick Tiger and Azumah Nelson ... And, most charismatic of all the champions I have ever reported and met, the unforgettable, loveable three time heavyweight title winner, Muhammad Ali.

When I moved from The Times of London to the London Evening Standard in 1976 there was also the new opportunity to write about what has been called the grass roots of sport, about the neglected opportunities, even in an apparently prosperous Western city of five million people, to give young people the chance to play sport and to enjoy being fit and healthy. More than 20 years later the British state school system provides in many cases less chance for physical education than my two oldest sons - one now in independent television the other with BBC radio - were able to enjoy in the Seventies.

As symbols of my long and ever changing period of Forty Years in the Press Box - to make it sound like a jail sentence rather than the fun it was - I can compare my tiny press accreditation badge from the Olympic Games of 1956 in Melbourne, Australia and my high tech, high security press identification tag from the most recent Olympics at Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 1996 when I was a member of the New York Times team.

Incidentally, if Atlanta has the world's press vote as the worst organized, my own favourite from l4 Summer and Winter Olympics was the warm welcome from Lillehammer, Norway in the winter of l994.

Sports at times of political trouble
A witness to change? Well, there would certainly be something terribly wrong with the world of sport and something very amiss with my development if neither of us had changed since that exciting November day in l956 when I flew out of London airport, celebrating my 24th birthday, candle lit cake and all, during the long turbo prop flight, to report the Melbourne Olympic Games for The Times of London.

Ideally we should always be ready to be professional news reporters first and sports writers only second. I mean this in the sense that any events inside a sports stadium cannot for very long ignore the world outside. Those of you who have read about the Nazi organised Berlin Olympics of 1936 or, like me, actually reported the Olympics of l968 in Mexico City and l972 in Munich, both overshadowed by political violence, will know what I mean.

So let me underline what a different place the world was in l956 and what a miracle it was that the Games took place at all in the political climate of those times. Only a few weeks before the scheduled opening ceremony in Melbourne, the Suez Canal had been controversially invaded by a British - French force and the then Soviet Union had moved its tanks into Budapest to crush a nationalist Hungarian uprising.

One of my most moving memories of that time was the night, at the very end of the 1956 Games, when Hungary's Laszlo Papp won his third successive Olympic gold boxing medal. In the stadium there must have been gathered most of the Hungarian team, several of them already determined to seek political asylum rather than return home. When they sang their national anthem as Papp received his medal many of us were close to sharing their tears.

International sport, especially when it came to both Olympic and European competition, continued to reflect some aspects of the political world and for those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear some of our frequent visits to the European Communist bloc in the Sixties and Seventies will never be forgotten. We found superb sports organizations, financially totally backed by the State, with the most up to date scientific coaching, producing young champions who were ideologically convinced they were their country's ambassadors but also knew that success would bring them material rewards from the State as well.

None the less, I often found a chillingly impersonal touch about these brave new sports worlds, especially in the GDR or East Germany which, argued its fiercest critics, was neither German, democratic nor a republic. We now know what we always suspected - that a considerable percentage of the East German medal winning and world record breaking machine, especially in women's swimming and athletics, was powered by illegal, performance aiding drugs.

None of this cheating was ever mentioned by the East German media who were little more than State propagandists and often so arrogant that Soviet, Hungarian and Polish colleagues complained to me about them when I was president of the AIPS athletic writers. Even following the unexpected collapse of the Communist bloc in Europe, drug taking, detected regularly in the United States, Western Europe and China, continues to stain many sports including track and field, swimming, cycling and weight-lifting.

There were always cheats - go to ancient Olympia and you will hear that those found guilty had to erect a statue in their own dishonour. The battle may never be won because new hard to detect substances are always being tried. But the fight to educate and deter, especially the very young, must continue.

The runners from Africa
Happily, one of the most exciting developments in international sport in my time has been virtually free so far of drugs scandals. I refer to the explosion of middle and long distance running talent from Africa - from Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, Somalia and Burundi. As the classical writer Pliny put in: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi... Out of Africa something always new.

I thought of that Latin quotation on an evening in l962, in the Australian town of Geraldton, when Peter Snell, New Zealand's triple Olympic athletics champion, was sitting with me in the centre of the ground at a pre Commonwealth Games meeting. Pointing to a long striding black runner on the backstraight during a two miles, Snell remarked: I don't know his name but that guy looks pretty good. In fact we were both watching, on his very first race outside Africa, Kenya's Kipchoge Keino, later to break world records, win Olympic medals and warm many of us through his friendship.

Looking even further back I remember one of the first fine African runners, Nyandika Maiyoro of Kenya, coming to race at the old White City stadium in London in l954. He finished third in a world record three miles but some of the crowd could not help laughing when his inexperience of a modern cinders track caused him to bump against the raised kerb. Nowadays, if anyone laughs at the top African runners it is in amazement at their speed and power.

But when we read this summer about a million dollar prize being offered for beating 8 minutes in the two miles it should not be forgotten how long it took for African runners, most of them from large, poor families, to have their worth acknowledged by European promoters. In l982 in Stockholm I recall Peter Koech of Kenya, who had just run 5,000 metres in the excellent time of 13min.9.50sec., delightedly telling me that he had been paid just 5 (five pounds), no more than eight dollars, for his world class run.

Having seen South Africa compete in my earliest Olympics and then having personally approved of their suspension because of the national apartheid laws I was delighted when that country, whose president is a former amateur boxer named Nelson Mandela, returned to the Games at Barcelona in l992. Four years later at Atlanta there was cause for more celebration when marathon runner Josiah Thugwane became the very first black South African Olympic champion.

A week earlier Ghada Shouaa from Syria had won the women's heptathlon, not only the first Olympic victory for that nation but another step forward in women's sports emancipation following the brave campaigning of Algeria's 1992 1,500 metres champion Hassiba Boulmerka against chauvinist extremists in her country.

It may seem incredible to consider now that it was not until the Munich Games of 1972 that women were allowed to run even as far as 1,500 metres and the marathon, an event to which many women may be better physiologically and mentally suited than men, was not introduced until Los Angeles 1984. Personally, I never had any doubts as to women's sports potential and rights to a full competitive programme. But to listen to the male bias of both officialdom and the media in the very recent past was both sad and disturbing.

Faster, higher, longer ... but still fun?
Measurable sports like athletics, swimming and weight-lifting the international standards have inevitably improved. Such progress has been inevitable because participation now involves all the continents and most of the peoples of the world. Film evidence also implies that team games like football and rugby are played at a far greater pace than they were in the Fifties and Sixties. Boxing may be one of the few fields in which standards of skill may not have necessarily risen because the number of professionals has decreased in the United States and Europe over the past 30 to 40 years and international amateur boxing has been challenged in popularity by keener interest in the martial arts like judo and karate.

Financial reward available in once amateur sports has meant higher standards as more and more talented young men and women devote themselves to full time training backed by teams of coaches, physiotherapists and doctors. My only personal regret as a veteran sports writer is that the amateur champions of the past, living a much less intensely focused life, were sometimes rather more interesting to spend time with...

Which brings me to the vital, human side of sport and society and the hope that more and more televising of great events will never lead to a serious decline in sport for fun. The very greatest of the champions I have met knew how to smile in defeat and to win graciously. As our parents and our teachers always insisted:"It's only a game, after all..."

I will end with a story about my favourite sports hero of all - Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia who won four Olympic gold medals for distance running, the 10,000 metres in l948 and the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon, the only man ever to do so, in 1952. Emil, a true man of the people, later sacrificed his professional Army career by speaking out against the Soviet domination of his country when the liberal Dubcek regime was dismissed.

It was in the summer of 1966 that Zatopek, by then retired from competition, invited the great Australian runner Ron Clarke, breaker of 23 world records but never an Olympic champion himself, to be his guest for a week in Prague. As Clarke was to tell me years after, Zatopek was the perfect host during his stay, even accompanying Ron through the airport's passport control point when he left. It was then that Zatopek unobtrusively handed Clarke a small paper wrapped package and whispered: "This is for you Ron, not in friendship, but because you deserve it. But please do not open it until you are through Czech air space..."

Mystified, Ron Clarke impatiently waited through the first few minutes of the flight and then finally made his way to the privacy of the toilet at the back of the plane. When he opened the package he found that inside, inscribed in English to "Ron Clarke" and dated that day, was Zatopek's own 10,000 metres Olympic gold medal from Helsinki. Ron Clarke's reaction sums it all up for those of us who care about the values of true sportsmanship: "I sat on that lavatory seat, with that unbelievable gift in my hands, and I wept."

From the book "Society's Watchdog - or Showbiz' Pet?" Inspiration to Better Sports Journalism, Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations 1998.

Neil Allen is a former president of the AIPS, Athletics Writers Commission.

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