Putting sport journalism into perspective

14 October 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Here at upstart the question was recently posed:  is sport journalism glamorous? Compared to what many people do for a living, the answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Being paid to go to the best sporting events around the world and speak to the biggest names in sport is glamorous. There are occasions when it is decidedly not, such as ‘staking out’ a player’s house, or hanging around medical centre car parks, but that is for another time.

The question I’d like to pose, however, is is sports journalism important?  After a month in India working at the Commonwealth Games, the confronting sights of disabled people or mothers with new born children lying at the base of traffic lights, hoping for a hand out, had me wondering whether it would be more worthwhile to write about the millions of people who are starving, instead of whether Lawn Bowls should be in the Olympics.

In the days leading up to the first day of competition, many of the city’s beggars had been driven off the streets of New Delhi by police instructed to present the city in the best possible light to visitors. Even so, it’s not hard to find families living in shocking conditions. I see one family of three generations, living under an overpass, on my way to work each day.

My colleagues and I have been advised not give money to beggars, because it’s like throwing a chip to a seagull, in a matter of seconds you’ll find yourself surrounded. Or sometimes there is a ‘master’ sitting out of sight who takes the lion’s share of whatever is given. The point isn’t whether to give money or not, but that in the course of their work, sports journalists will sometimes be confronted with real life struggles, which make the results of sporting events pale into insignificance.

When the first of the trapped miners in Chile was pulled to the surface, even some of the monitors in the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Delhi, which are normally fixed on the Commonwealth Games, were temporarily switched to live coverage of the emotional reunions. When the miners are all out, journalists will be on hand to ask questions about issues such as mine safety, which may play a part in the prevention of similar incidents in the future.

The sports journalist needs to be able to reconcile that writing about Sally Pearson’s false start or whether St Kilda let an opportunity slip, is also making a contribution to society, albeit in a less obvious way.

The Bengali Sweet House is a laminex-tabled eatery in a circle of shops, on the perimeter of a roundabout, near the war memorial, India Gate. The cafe is open to the street on two sides and on the night I visit, the heat of the Indian autumn evening even has the locals using menus to fan themselves. Melburnians might describe it as Delhi’s answer to Richmond’s Thy Thy but not quite as classy. Here, you can feed a family of four several dishes for about ten dollars.

The place is buzzing with people chatting and constantly looking up at an old ceiling-mounted tube television, showing a Commonwealth Games hockey match involving India. The sound is turned down but when India scores, a roar goes up around the cafe which seats about 100. Sport has united a group of strangers and there are smiles and discussion about whether India will hang on to win. Sport has an important role to play in the lives of people from all walks of life, and on this night it seems particularly important to working-class Indians hoping a hockey win will give them a moment of euphoria.

Sport journalists can be reassured that although reporting on the results of matches and providing an insight into the people who play them may not save the world, we do have the capacity to unite, entertain and inform, and here in Delhi, that makes life in a developing nation more tolerable.

David Lowden is the newly appointed Senior Lecturer in Sport Journalism at La Trobe University. He has worked in sport broadcasting for the last 20 years.