Sports offers writers an opportunity to express all the pleasure and passion of life.
Gathered now in London, they are out to make the fun and games of the Olympics into something more, to take you beyond yourself, to lift you with a performance that is graceful or muscular or gymnastic or maybe even -- for here the bar is highest -- unforgettable.
We are talking about sportswriters, a famously shopworn and bibulous lot whose calling the novelist Richard Ford, himself a former sportswriter, lamented in his novel "The Sportswriter" as "more like being a businessman, or an old-fashioned traveling salesman with a line of novelty household items, than being a genuine writer ... there is very little that is ever genuinely creative to it at all."
Yet so often, the greatest spur to the imagination is limitation. What Ford's sportswriter overlooked is that for really good writers, sports offers an opportunity to express all the pleasure and passion of life.
I spent 4 1/2 years as a young reporter at Sports Illustrated, in the company of many fine writers and editors. All of them knew that the world considered sports to be of modest significance.
And yet they also observed how much time and emotion people invested in sports and saw that sports mattered in ways that transcended the games. They took some credit for this.
When I left to write books, the first one about sports, I continued to think about my privileged apprenticeship -- about what sportswriters do to make the unimportant feel absolutely urgent.
When writing about sports, you have to learn to navigate an odd literary predicament: Your audience often already knows the outcome before it starts reading. An editor at Sports Illustrated once advised me that the art of the work rested in telling people who already know what happened a story so compelling that they forget everything and, at the end, wish they'd been there.
Not every writer can chance upon a famous athlete's last game, as John Updike did for his peerless profile of Ted Williams. We won't all encounter a young basketball player so committed to developing a sense of where he is on the court that he practices dribbling around lines of chairs with makeshift blinders in eyeglass frames (see John McPhee on Bill Bradley).
But this editor helped me to regard sports as a parallel world full of little climaxes and telling details, just waiting for you to make the most of them.
One of the reasons that most good writing about sports is nonfiction is that you just can't compete with the inherent drama of the reality. In 1986, I sat with Roger Angell of The New Yorker and Peter Gammons of Sports Illustrated in the Shea Stadium press box for the end of Game 6 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. I was then 23, a cub reporter, paying careful attention not only to the games, but also to those two.
Gammons was the relentless private investigator probing a public realm, an obsessive who, during his years at The Boston Globe, opened up the game to readers by covering vast pages of the Sunday newspaper with sprees of information, speculation, gossip and discourse. Angell formed belles-lettres out of ballplayers; his prose was a martini poured across the page -- smooth and elegant, with juniper wit and distilled insights that made something you already liked even more complex in its flavors.
That October evening, it had been 68 years since the Red Sox last won baseball's championship, during which time they had become the sport's indefatigable fatigables. Year after year they crept close to victory, only to lose again in ever-more-histrionic fashion. Here they were the closest yet, ahead three games to two, and now winning, 5-3, as the bottom of the 10th inning began.
The press box was situated high above the field, requiring a trip to reach the clubhouse level. Throngs of sportswriters were climbing aboard the elevator to see the Red Sox as they came inside to celebrate the long-awaited triumph. Angell and Gammons, however, didn't move, so neither did I.
When the infamous ground ball rolled between the Boston first baseman Bill Buckner's legs giving the game to New York, I had the feeling that we were the only three left up there to see. It's as if they knew. Later, when Angell told of the evening, he described his graffiti-riven scorecard -- "Wow!" -- before declaring "no shorthand can convey the vast, encircling, supplicating sounds of that night, or the sense of encroaching danger on the field."
Like Angell, most sportswriters are impassioned fans, but of course writing about games requires distance. A formidable figure in American press boxes during my Sports Illustrated years was Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune.
Holtzman wore crisp suits to the ballpark and had eyebrows so dense they looked like a pair of nesting voles. Sportswriters who made hagiography their business so annoyed him that he published a book called "No Cheering in the Press Box." (The recent unmasking of Joe Paterno makes his point about the "Godding up" of athletic figures.)
Somewhere between the contentious style of Dick Young of the New York Daily News and routine multimillion-dollar contracts, things swung the other way and sportswriters began to be perceived not as giddy fans but as antagonists by the athletes they cover. There's some truth to their complaints.
I can't think of many other forms of journalism where it's acceptable to insult your subjects. "It's like a sex columnist who hates sex," is how a young NFL coach I know thinks about those covering his team.
Some athletes also hold it against writers who never played the game. Personal expertise: Does it matter? How many presidential biographers held office; how many music writers could play "Misty" for you?
Kenny Moore, who finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon and became Sports Illustrated's seminal track and field correspondent, was the rare athlete who wrote as well as he ran.
While it may be true that baseball has attracted so much good writing because so many writers hit and threw as children, a more persuasive answer is that, unlike football, the sport has long been open to writers, allowing them so much time before and after games to ask questions. (Baseball's pacing, punctuated by pauses, is likewise a boon to writerly meditation.) Many of the more recondite Olympic sports are only recently familiar to the writers covering them. With the good writers, though, you'll never notice.
Athletes, after all, are characters to a sportswriter, just as family members must be to a memoirist. You are responsible for them in full, and it's particularly important to remember what brought you to them in the first place.
What writers like Angell, McPhee, A.J. Liebling, George Plimpton and the great Red Smith, as well as Sports Illustrated writers like Roy Blount, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf-- too many to mention! -- share is the essence of good sportswriting: empathy. The appreciation of others is, for most, the reason to watch games, and it happens to be a noble human quality.
Where too much recent American literature is less concerned with any search for meaning than the preening desire to be admired, really good sportswriting is grounded in curiosity and revelation, an enthusiast's notes.
And while few authors can compete with the reality, a writer can deepen it, preserve what happened and then mine it for the deeper human qualities at play that are the essence of lasting writing.