During more than 15 years as a published writer, I’ve had the good fortune to write about a variety of subjects, though most have some connection to sports. As a kid, I never would have said I was into sports – well, maybe baseball – and as an adult, I often feel hard-pressed to say I’m a sports guy. And yet, my career shows an excellent depth of experience in a variety of sports. I’ve written a lot of game stories – player X did this to get past player Y, and won the match/game/race – but pretty quickly I found myself gravitating towards a different sort of story. Audiences seem to like them too, and in the end, as I was advised by sports writer Stephen Brunt, it’s not actually about the sport at all.
During my first full time job in sports media, as a web writer and producer for CTV in the lead up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, I was amazed at how Brunt could cover any sport in compelling fashion. I asked him how he knew so much to be able to write so well.
“I don’t know all of the sports that well,” he said. “I can research that stuff. You have to understand what motivates the athlete to do what they do and tell that story.”
I’ve since worked to understand people better; to understand the challenges they face, and why they press on when the odds are so heavily against them. I’ve interviewed World Champions and Olympians, and athletes who compete in obscure sports you’ve never heard of, and seen first hand how sports are so much more than the rules of play on the field, or the backroom management meetings. The Olympic medal was won not under a five-ringed banner, but instead in those extra few minutes of daily practice for years leading up to competition; choices in the grocery aisle that nourish the body to better build muscle and power; the journaling to process fears before they ever manifest in competition. These concepts help readers relate, and feed into what I’ve seen as the hierarchy in what kind of sports stories get told.
At the most basic level, sports stories fall into a two-sided narrative. It’s combative, quick, not terribly nuanced. Sort of like boxing. Sure, there’s some level of skill and talent, but the area of competition is small, and the dynamic is straightforward. (ASIDE: If you’re into boxing and think I am wrong, invite me to a match. I’d love to go.) This is often where “game stories” fit in. Fact-full, but rarely entertaining without a greater context.
The second tier of sports stories are much like the first, but with a more pronounced team element. Again, we’re really talking abut a game story here. The Patriots beat the 49ers with a score of “whatever” to “something.” Sports pages are full of this stuff, and I’ve read and heard suggestions that artificial intelligence will ultimately finish the commodification of this kind of writing, displacing human writers altogether.
Things start to become interesting when one looks at longer term legacies. The New York Yankees and New Zealand All Blacks come to mind. Not flawless, but dominant, perhaps dynastic. All of a sudden, there’s more layers, a longevity greater than any one player, coach, or management exec. Books get written about these topics because they are so deep with material. Management consultants pull business lessons out of this look at sports. We’re in a different ballpark here.
The stories that most fascinate me are those where combative competition isn’t the aim. No longer adversarial, but really in pursuit of the best possible performance. Beating rivals becomes the by-product of the real goal of excellence. This is the realm of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. If that sounds weird, let’s come back to sports and discuss Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, or the recent project to accomplish a sub-two-hour marathon. Yes, there are business interests at play. Yeager was part of a bigger project to get to space, and beat the Russians. The marathon project was criticized as a marketing stunt for Nike.
But look just a little closer, and you’ll see traits of something that is bigger than sport. In the first real attempt, runner Eliud Kipchoge smashed the fastest previously recorded time by more than two and a half minutes, yet missed the two hour cutoff by 25 seconds. He and everyone else working on the project “lost.” They failed to achieve their most obvious sporting goal.
And yet, against those failures, they’ve gotten people talking about running who have had previously no interest in the sport (me included). They’ve earned exposure beyond the sports pages. There’s a wealth of scientific knowledge that was developed to feed this program, and Adidas is stepping forward with their own efforts to fuel a sub-tow-hour time. Every single one of these outcomes is a clear victory.
At this level, sport exists in a different way, held in the context of human achievement at the sharpest end of the spear, aiming not to beat “the other” but to better oneself. These are the stories that capture the imagination, that transcend any one industry, and engage the widest audiences.
I would still suggest I am not a “sports guy” in the typical fashion. Instead, I view the world through the metaphor of sport to look for how much we can achieve.
These are the kinds of stories I love to tell.