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THE OLYMPICS, FOOTBALL & THE MEDIA: A TWO WAY STREET?

by Rory Smith // 6 August 2012 // 30 Comments

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Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, heartbroken and drained, somehow muster the strength to clamber from their lightweight double scull adrift on the still, dark pool at Eton Dorney and into the BBC’s interview area. John Inverdale, sparkling, feminine eyes set in his granite head, thrusts a microphone towards them. Their chests heave with sorrow, their faces forlorn, their dreams dashed.

“Zac, Mark,” starts Inverdale. “What went wrong? Do you feel you badly mistimed your finish? Did you practise finishing in training? What is it about this country and just missing out on gold medals? Will you be back in Rio? Was this your last chance? What’s the mood in the boat like?”

In the Velodrome, Geraint Thomas, fresh from his gold medal in the Team Pursuit, is bantering with Jake Humphreys and Mark Cavendish, not so garrulous as usual, still chastised and resentful of his treatment by the newspapers after missing out on a medal in the Men’s Road Race. “Failure,” one front page screamed. “Missile Misfires,” screamed another. Chants of “You let your country down” have rung around the Velodrome when his face appears on the big screen.

“It’s been great for the women to have their families around them,” says Thomas, still clearly hungover from his celebrations of the previous night, in his soft Welsh lilt. “They’re emotional creatures.”

The headline writers on Derry Street snap into action. “Thomas in sexist slur,” one suggests. A sub-deck is prepared. “Welsh medallist on 24-hour binge,” it reads, followed by: “Cyclist even snubbed OUR anthem.”

The Olympics are not football. The Olympics stand, in the public’s consciousness, as the anti-football. They are about sacrifice and sportsmanship, about dedication and determination. They are populated by athletes who have given up everything for that one shot at glory. They are beautiful when you win and they are brutal when you do not. They are about applauding the man or woman who might be about to beat your hero; they are about cheering the slowest as much as the fastest.

They are sport, or so we imagine, in its purest form. They have none of the cynicism or the arrogance or the surliness or the posturing or the cheating or the gamesmanship that characterise, that afflict, football. The Olympics are not football, and the Olympics make football look bad, and football does not need any help in doing that.

And so the scenes imagined above seem impossible. Hunter and Purchase – in what remains, for me, the single most moving image of London 2012 – were lifted from their boat by Sir Steve Redgrave, their lungs burning and their eyes moist, and they were greeted by Inverdale with a consolatory pat and the words: “You’ve let no-one down”.  It is hard to imagine Andy Burton or Geoff Shreeves doing that.

Thomas did go on a bit of a binge – most of the gold medallists have – by all accounts, and did make what was a very obvious gag about women being emotional. That is not a criticism of Thomas, not at all; simply an observation that the Olympics permits a sense of humour, just as it permits a sense of sympathy, whereas football does not.

Footballers who do not win for their nation are treated as failures. They are not greeted by moist-eyed presenters reassuring them that they tried their hardest. Footballers who express personality are ritually sacrificed on the media altar; jokes are wilfully ignored or misunderstood; the slightest whiff of controversy is enough to prick the nose of the pack, and the kill is not long in coming.

The simple explanation for that difference in approach is that the Olympics is an innately epic event; it is once every four years; it showcases sports which do not reward their participants with millions of pounds and countless endorsements, seemingly regardless of ability; that lack of lucre means that Olympic athletes are more humble, more grounded, less detached from society. They are simply dedicated, devoted, superhumans, capable of enduring more so as to run faster, throw further, jump higher.

That manifests itself in a number of ways. We watch sports we are not interested in, simply because they are infused with the significance of rarity: all of these athletes have worked so hard just for this moment. There are no second chances, no return legs, no league games next week, no concentrate on the cup.

And we watch sports regardless of gender: ordinarily, women’s sport is estimated to attract just five per cent of television, radio and newspaper coverage, but at the Olympics (a rough estimate) would have it at about even. Few who watched Jessica Ennis win gold would have thought they were watching a woman, or wondered whether it’d be more exciting if this was a men’s event. They were watching a Briton. That’s all that matters.

But there is more. People resent football. Genuinely resent it. Even those who love it. Kristian Walsh, a writer of this parish, described our affair with football as an “abusive relationship.” It’s hard to think of a better parallel. Football bruises us and hurts us and defeats us, but we always come back for more. Nobody will go into work dreading what their Danish colleague might say because Hunter and Purchase missed out on gold; nobody will take to Twitter to call for their coach’s sacking; nobody will have not watched the Olympic highlights programme because they couldn’t bear to see Team GB lose.

Watching the Olympics is a win-win: you’re delighted if Britain – or whatever your country might be – win, but when Andy Badderley doesn’t make the final of the 1500 metres, you just move on to the next event. We can all pretend we’re moved by the stories of sacrifice, but we only take note of the ones with happy – or brutally sad – endings. Football is not like that. The Olympics is a joyous, elating virus. Football is a condition.

Inverdale, that old Easter Island monolith, said on commentary the other day that “sometimes you love sport and sometimes you hate it, but basically, you just love it.” That is true of sport to an extent, but football to a greater degree. To be a football fan is to hate being a football fan, roughly 50 per cent of the time.

It’s not hard to see why it is resented, by those who love it almost as much as those who do not. Football is bloated, gorged on its own greed and drunk on its self-importance. It takes a grip of the public’s consciousness and it strangles us into submission. Football never lets go. As Mitchell and Webb observed in their peerless pastiche of Sky’s coverage of the national game, “the football will never stop.”

To an extent, this is not football’s fault. Three million more people (23.1m) watched England crash out of the Euros than watched Usain Bolt win the 100m (20.1m). The media has a didactic role – it is to newspapers and television to tell people what is important, as well as to reflect what they believe to be important – but they are governed, by and large, by the law of the market.

Athletics or rowing will not attract column inches until thousands are going to athletics or rowing events on a regular basis. What has happened this summer happens every four summers: we declare our love for all things Olympic, swear off the football for good, but our vows never last. Maybe it will be different because it is on these shores, because we can see it, touch it, but the evidence would suggest not. The Ashes win in 2005 did not lead to a surge in county cricket attendances; if the same happens with cycling, say, then coverage will not improve in the long-term.

And so now football dominates year-round; there is no break, no cessation. The summer, once the preserve of cricket and tennis, is now pre-season tours and transfer rumours; this summer has even provided the distraction of a court case in which the caricature nature of football, and footballers, was laid bare: boorish, crass, thick. The racism charge laid at John Terry, of which he was absolved, simply served to underline the point that football stands apart from the rest of society. It is almost now at the status of guilty pleasure, a soap opera and Jeremy Kyle and  Football is everywhere, it is endless, it is unintelligent and it is loud and it is brash and it is ugly.

The Olympics are none of those things, even when they’re in London. The British do not do patriotism well – it never takes much for it to slip into narrow-minded nationalism – but London 2012 has been proud without being jingoistic, celebratory without being smug.

The athletes have helped. They are well-spoken, polite, humble, awed, and we lap it up. They are erudite and articulate and informed. They are diplomatic without delving into the well-mined world of platitude.

There is a class element here, and one that cannot be denied: the rowers and the sailors, in particular, are middle-class. That’s not a bad thing, but when the average standard of sporting interview is a working-class footballer who grew up in one of the worst areas in the country and was removed from school at 16, Anna Watkins – erstwhile of Newnham College, Cambridge – is always likely to be a better talker. If not, as Alan Shearer would say, she would be disappointed with that.

But it is not just class. In fact, it is not even mainly class, or education, or anything like that. Olympic athletes are not like footballers because they are not treated like footballers; it is here that the media must blame itself for allowing the national game to indulge all of its basest desires.

Footballers are resentful of the media, be it print or televised, because the media insist on portraying football through a narrative of crisis and triumph. If you lose, and you are interviewed by someone who keeps telling you how much of a disaster your defeat is, you’re going to be surly.

If you win and you’re asked whether this means you’re now the greatest team in the world, you’re going to clam up. If you know that your performance is going to be picked apart and your future questioned and your immediate sale demanded by a newspaper the next day, you probably won’t want to talk to them.

If you know that an interview you give may well be twisted into something it’s not, that a point punctuated by a swearword will be cast as a foul-mouthed rant, you probably won’t give the interview in the first place.

The Olympians, by contrast, have been met by a plaintiff media. The average BBC interview essentially asks each athlete, in turn, what it is like to be an athlete, and whether the crowd were noisy, and whether they are pleased with their medal and the culmination of their life’s work. The cornerstone question is: “How are you feeling?” The media term for this technique is soft-soaping. Athletes, whether they run or jump or row or kick, whether they are posh or bourgeois or blue collar or white, tend to like a soft-soaping. It’s easy to be articulate, to be grateful and proud, but also humble and reserved, when someone is lathering you up with their words.

No wonder Ezekiel Kemboi, winner of the only event in the Olympics which attempts to discover which human being is most like a horse, apparently greeted the mixed zone by declaring that such “a crowd of journalists makes me happy.” That is not a sentiment ever heard from Ashley Cole.

This phenomenon exists on the macro-level, too. There have been no inquests at these Olympics. The British swimmers underperformed, by all accounts, and no doubt at some point someone will ask why that was, but for the moment, everything is golden and shimmering and pure. Football, the way football is covered, makes such a scenario impossible. Someone is always to blame. It is no surprise that the Olympic sports are more amenable to the idea of allowing journalists and television cameras access, of permitting the chance to show their human sides. Nobody is likely to use the footage to call for their heads.

This is not a defence of footballers, or a criticism of the Olympics. Football can learn a lot from what we have seen in the last week or so; just as, with any luck, the long-term legacy of London 2012 will be increased participation and coverage in and of Olympic sports, hopefully football, and the football media, will see that a more open and more honest approach on both sides leads to more a positive – and more popular – image.

But it is a plea not to judge football, or footballers, by what has been seen these past two weeks. It is easy to condemn the millionaire playboys who provide the opium with which we dull our senses all year, every year. It is easy to say they are too rich, too detached, too arrogant, too surly, too thick, too unpleasant. It is easy to say the Olympics show football in its harsh, true light, that they prove that the national game should not be allowed to smash a pneumatic drill through our consciousness 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But perhaps the Olympians, if they had the money – and surely it is better that the players get the money that has washed into football than the organ-grinders – that footballers do, would be just as surly. Perhaps if they did not have a media offering them a shoulder to cry on, but rather one ready to stab them in the back, they would be reticent to pour their hearts out, to show their human face. We are in an abusive relationship with football. But do not be fooled by the blissful romance of a quadrennial summer fling.

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30 Comments

  1. A brilliant piece. It’s important to bear in mind that amidst the ‘celebratory’ spirit of the Olympics, the vitriolic – and dare I say, almost racist – bile poured out towards Suarez and Uruguay by fans of Team GB in Cardiff shows just how shallow this newfound love for sport really runs.

  2. You’ve only got to see the different reactions of the crowd in the football and the other Olympic events. The football crowd booed someone who was convicted by the FA without having a shred of evidence, the rest of the events are celebrated by all without media influence.

    • Not really an alternate view at all , merely one guy whining that footballers earn to much money, and therefore have no motivation to succeed. Complete nonsense.

  3. Well done Rory, you’ve written yet another thoughtful, insightful article. How are you feeling?

  4. Cracking that Rory. Cheers.

  5. I think football also suffers from the “familiarity breeds contempt” mantra. As Rory says above, the Olympics happens every 4 years. There will be a brief media storm around the athletes (particularly those who have won medals or had a disaster) and then they’ll get back to the everyday life of an elite athlete. We will forget about them for 4 years.

    Footballers are different. They don’t play football once every 4 years. They play every week (some of them, twice a week). They don’t get to fade away into the background.

    Let’s pretend Mo Farah (to take an example) had to perform within the same context as a footballer. Let’s let him run a 10k race once or twice a week in the Olympic Stadium. His fellow competitors are sometimes Olympic level, sometimes from the local sports centre and sometimes just trying to trip him up. Let’s have half of the crowd being supportive and half of the crowd shouting obscenities about him, his family and his upbringing. Now imagine that each performance is going to be publicly marked out of ten, regardless of whether he won or not and without any guidelines as to how the marks are being awarded. His performance will then be micro-analysed and discussed on every media outlet (and by most of the spectators) who will all have slightly different views on what went wrong/right. Any below-par performance (and for Mo Farah, ‘below-par’ will be outside a medal wining performance) will come with calls for justifications for his continued involvement and cuts to his funding and sponsorship.

    Could he do it?

    This is the level of performance we demand of footballers. I’m not at all surprised they’re surly every so often and occasionally want to let their hair down. I’m increasingly surprised that anyone wants to do it at all.

  6. Don’t fall into the trap of overestimating the middle-classness of Olympic sports. Sure, Anna Watkins went to Newnham but she went to state school before that – as did roughly half our rowers – whereas two current England footballers – at least – went to independent schools. Currently around 2/3 of our medalists in this Olympics went to state schools. Sports like gymnastics, amateur boxing or track and field are as working-class as you could wish, and their basic infrastructure is as grassroots as kids’ football: it begins in school halls and community centres just as kids’ football starts on community playing fields.

  7. While the event has obviously been great viewing for most, and no doubt a huge financial success to fill the coffers of both the IOC, the “buy our brand or nothing sponsors” and the GB Olympic Association, the high profile media coverage by the BBC has been at times gut wrenching. While Eurosport were showing a medal ceremony that didn’t contain a GB contender, over on BBC1 it was some young faceless presenter interviewing people wandering round the park. I always considered that one of the key things about the Olympics was that it about ‘the sport’ the ‘Olympic Spirirt’ not just ‘the GB sport’ The flag waving ‘GB or nothing’ choice the BBC in both its mainline TV and 5-Live coverage makes you realize why people in this nation, from outside of England, generally have a problem with the ‘London centric’ style of most media outlets. This is the same but substituting GB for England. The various conversations I’ve seen about the inevitable ‘legacy’ question and the ‘watershed moment’ for minority sports breakthrough time, will certainly be worth re-visiting in 1, 2, 3 years’ time. Really can’t see the interest, both participating and watching, the likes of clay shooting, sailing, pommel horse etc. changing from the hard core norm. The comparison with football is fine to make, but very hard to compare both the competitors and followers, two totally different animals for the most part. One thing this holier than thou Olympics has underlined though, is that it to along with football has sold its soul to money and the privileged few. The Olympic Games of 2012 are not the same as even 20, 30 years ago. An immoral 27 million pounds spent on an opening ceremony, scandalous ticketing system, crass sponsorship rules, political and royal band wagon jumping are some of the unedifying sights of London 2012. So yes by all means try to hit football with the Olympic stick, but aside from the fantastic efforts by athletes from ALL competing countries, at the core of its hierarchy it’s really not that different from the world’s favourite sport.

  8. It is truly a two-way-street, and it seems now more than ever, the UK media in particular, need to take more responsibility in how they cover football. The constant bating, slagging off, and twisting of words makes the papers unbearable to read.

    It’s no wonder more people are tuning in to opinionated and well written blogs (The Anfield Wrap for one), rather than read what someone has written simply to sell a few more papers. I think the respect between footballers and the media and the fans and the media would be helped enormously if that wasn’t the case. Maybe some integrity needs to return, on both sides, and the fans need to start buying into it.

    The bottom line is the media have an enormous amount of power in swaying the public opinion. They should start using that power for good rather than evil.

  9. The country puts so much money into Football, yet we don’t seem to be getting the returns on the national stage. Surely this has something to do with the national perception also?

    I always used to say to myself, “If we can’t be good at Football, how can we be good at anything”? That doesn’t seem to be the case as we are doing ridiculously well at the Olympics so far. Funding, population and participation seem to be some of the major reasons that a country is particularly good at a certain sport. We definitely have all them areas checked with Football. I just don’t understand why we can’t seem to put it all together. I really don’t know what to think anymore. I’m just so used to the negativity, contempt and resentment that comes with Football. It’s hard to separate your own opinions from the media ones sometimes.

  10. “How are you feeling?” may be a soft soaping question – but it is also an open question and gives the person responding an option of how they might answer, depending on their current state.
    Football journalists lead with their questions and it then becomes “How disappointed are you?” – what is someone supposed to say to that? “Umm… 6 out of 10?” The presumption is that they are disappointed and means that the headline can be written in advance “Manager ‘Disappointed’ with result”.

    Perhaps if the football journalists interviewed with a sense of openness to whatever the interviewee had to say, they would be less guarded and standard with their answers. Players are coached to give a stock media interview and the journalists feed them stock questions.

  11. Simply brilliant. I found myself feeling insulted by the grotesqueness of football especially in a Uraguay game in which a Player was roundly booed and the co-commentator moaned about how long it took him to drive from Bristol to Wales before nonchalantly declaring that he hadnt watched many games so he didn’t really know the anything about the players. But i guess we all know that Lawro is a gobshite and I know I’ll be coming back for more in a couple of weeks.

  12. TAW once again proving its a platform for some of the best football writing in the country right now.

  13. Absolutely fantastic piece Rory, as they always are. Bualadh bos, a chara

  14. The only thing wrong in that article was the idea we will always come back for more. Crowds at the Olympics don’t feel as exploited as we do, where our week in, week out, support is milked by absentee owners.

  15. Some interesting points there, a great read.

    I personally enjoy all sports so don’t see it as a case of football V Olympics, I love both.

    I do however see something in the Olympic athletes that is sadly lacking in footballers, It’s hard to put your finger on what it is, but it is there.
    Maybe this is becasuse they (FOOTBALLERS) work full time in a multi-million pound industry whereas the vast majority of Olympic Athletes don’t and can therefore afford to be a bit “nicer” as they’re not worn down by the constant attention and scrutiny.

    Don’t forget though Olymic sportsman don’t just compete every 4 years, they have their own national, World and European championships which will all be under scutiny and attention, albeit on a far lesser scale.

    I think the fact that our Olympic Athletes actually win may help us like them a bit more too!

    Either way, I love all sports and no doubt in a month or so will be glued to the Premier League again with the Olympics a distant, but very happy memory

  16. Why can’t the premiership be more like that Canada versus USA semi final?

  17. Would fans feel as bitter towards players if we all paid a tenner to get into the ground and they were all on a bit less a week? I’m sure they could all live quite comfortably on £20k or even £10k a week.

  18. An absolutely fantastic piece, once again. There aren’t many places you can get this level of writing. Well done Rory, well done TAW.

  19. Football is a truer reflection of the culture and society of a nation (of those that play it). Things such as style of play, terrace culture, media coverage, celebrity players etc. are all reflections of the cultural traits of a nation.
    Thanks to the Olympics people are realising that when they look at football, they are looking into the mirror.

    The Olympics – not the truly awful corporate fascism, just the sporting side – has reminded people what they would rather the country was like.

  20. Excellent piece. I think one of the other issues is that pretty much everything in football is viewed through the tinted spectacles of club loyalty – look at the Suarez issue for example, many people’s views on whether he was guilty or innocent were attributed to whether they were Liverpool fans or otherwise (fairly or unfairly – as this is an LFC site I should declare I’m a Villa fan here and have no views either way). Or the view, say, Frank Lampard saved his best performances for Chelsea and he wasn’t interested in England (Chelsea fans will disagree).

    Imagine the scorn that would be heaped on Phillips Idowu if we held the tribal loyalty towards athletics clubs that we do towards football clubs. We’d all be accusing him of thinking about himself before the team, typical Belgrave Harriers attitude (I had to look that up!). As it is, he gets sympathy because we wanted to believe that he was the man to win the triple jump for Great Britain and he got unlucky with injury.

  21. I enjoyed reading that article over my pint of korstrizer in Pi in Rose Lane. I particularly like the abusive relationship we have with football -i never thought of out that way before but it’s true.

  22. Fantastic article. Also like the point made by the guy about how a line of questioning limits the answers. LFCTV is one of the worst offenders in this respect. Almost every question is of the form, “How excited/disappointed/etc are you about…”

  23. Great stuff Rory. As a journalist I kept nodding my head in recognition of how the media plays certain quotes, nosing them into stories that never are. Twitter etc has made the situation even worse, but at the core of it is the required, mutual disdain. Football and we as football fans end up feeling like we deserve each other.
    Re the Olympics beano: I’ve loved it, for many of the reasons you outline, which is why Beckham’s appearance in the opening ceremony seemed so utterly contrived and pointless. Likewise the Suarez booing – it really jarred, particularly as Pearse aka Mr Team GB has previous himself. It is hard to deny the Olympics it’s charm, based mostly on it’s once-in-four hugeness. As an Irishman, four of our medals have been rendered dodgy by subsequent discoveries while one gold was stripped for cheating, yet we still sit there, wide-eyed, taking it all in. It would be great to think football could give us some more feelings like that.

  24. Ps: above typos due to predictive text on iPhone. I know I’m a hack but I can spell (most of the time)

  25. It’s true that because the Olympic’s roll round every four years for the most part we aren’t as tribal/passionate about the various sports as we are about football. But given the reaction of the fans, the entertainment of the events, and the enjoyment of reading the kind of press the athletes get (more on the positive and almost all on the sporting aspect rather than scandal), it serves to remind me that people take football way to seriously and this Olympic approach is probably how football should be watched/viewed/reported on.

  26. There’s post event Olympic interviews, there’s post match football interviews and then there’s cynical attempts at denigrating Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish.

    Apart from not identifying that lower base tier of media cynicism, thank you Rory for a superbly conceived and written piece.

  27. I never comment on articles because I’m not really equipped to offer opinion on someone who is much better at writing than me. However I feel qualified enough to state that that was a great piece.

  28. Great article Rory!
    The constant twisting of interviews and their soundbites, and the invention of transfer ‘sources’ to fuel rumours in newspapers make them almost unbearable these days.
    Very little credibility in a lot of the football stories in the mainstream media these days. Exaggerated and sensational headlines are deliberately misleading to readers. Disgraceful really in truth.

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