Beyond the noise of a sporting contest – be it a FIFA World Cup qualifier, an Olympic 100m sprint, or a junior basketball match at a suburban court – lies a complex web of back stories that has given rise to the growing genre of sports journalism, quite separate to sports reporting.
Those who choose to specialize in it use the prism of sport to explain the complexities of the world we live in with its geopolitical, cultural and social divides.
This week in Doha, as the Socceroos wrote the next chapter in their own individual and collective histories, a group of sports journalists from every continent gathered in the same city to have their work recognized at the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) Awards gala.
The photographic portfolios, investigations, color pieces and broadcast documentaries revealed an incredible depth of story-telling excellence that often goes unnoticed.
So began the gold medal winning ‘best color piece’ by Wufei Yu (China) and Will Ford (USA) published in Runner’s World.
It’s a haunting account from those who survived the tragedy of China’s 2021 Yellow River Stone Forest ultramarathon.
Experience counted for nothing as a freak cold snap left runners stranded between checkpoints, unable to go forward, too cold to go back. From the lead group of six, only one survived.
The story asks how it all went so wrong, speaking to survivors, some of whom are still struggling with what they experienced. This is not just the reporting of a sports event, this is journalism at its finest.
“I think sports journalism is often associated only with celebrity and entertainment culture,” Ford told The Ticket.
“But there’s so much greater humanity you can highlight through its lens – especially in the social, political, and anthropological sense.”
In the far west of Ghana, on the banks of the Pra River, is a small town described by journalist Francis Hena as ‘inspiring footnotes rather than headlines’.
He won the Best Broadcaster Young Reporters category with his story of hope emerging from what many might call a village of despair.
Young boys, children of subsistence farmers and fishers, dream of an alternative universe where they are big-time footballers playing on a world stage: they play for the Pra Babies Football Club where a young coach struggles himself to teach the boys, to feed them and kit them in order to develop within them a sense of pride in who they are and where life might take them.
“It’s very difficult,” coach Roland Fiifi Ackon tells Hema. “You don’t get support from anyone.”
Hema focussed on Pra Babies but there are teams like it all over Ghana, it is where the journey started for many of the hundreds of Ghanaians now playing in every major league in the world.
“Young footballers in Ghana and Africa struggle a lot,” Hema said.
“I hope my story on Pra Babies will change the narrative and the major stakeholders will give footballers at the grassroots the needed attention to help them reach their full potential.
“What drives me as a sports journalist is to see my stories impact the lives of people around me and the society at large.”
French journalist Matthieu Darnon won the Video Documentary award for his confronting expose on the 28 seconds in the life of former F1 driver Romain Grosjean where he was literally on fire.
The driver hit a metal barrier in the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, splitting his car in half as it exploded into a fireball.
His wife was watching live on TV thinking she had become a widow. His best friend of him was commentating the race trying to remain in control and consistent as his mind of him was out of control, flooded with emotion as the devastating scene played out in front of him.
Grosjean himself said he will never be the same, like his car at the time, his life now is in two parts – before and after November 29, 2020.
Darnon, the documentary maker, said journalists who do what he does are in a privileged situation.
“As journalists of sports, we have the great chance to follow people who are testing the human limits, either mentally or physically, which brings them to situations that normal people couldn’t even imagine,” he said.
“Actually, it’s quite rare to see your husband almost perish in flames live on TV.
“This is what I’ve tried to narrate in this documentary with Romain’s experience in his car… what his family and his friends endured during those frightening seconds of his crash.”
There is neither the time, nor the capacity, to list here in detail the merits of every award winner, but I wish I could. This small snapshot provides context to what it means to be a sports journalist.
There were stories of war in Afghanistan and Ukraine, of Paralympians fleeing to compete in Tokyo after the Taliban took over their country knowing it was likely they would never return home or see their families again.
There’s a story of the Algerian men’s football team of the 1980s who were unaware they’d been doped by their Russian coach until a number of them later in life gave birth to children who all had mental impairments.
And there’s one about a baseball team started in Fukushima to try to heal the people after a nuclear meltdown and tsunami left them broken and bereft.
At the start of the awards function, held in the middle of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium — one of the venues for the FIFA 2022 Men’s World Cup in December, AIPS President Gianno Merlo paid tribute to two journalists who for him personified what the awards, now in their fourth year, are all about.
Shireen Abu Akleh was a Palestinian-American journalist who worked for Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel before being shot dead in May this year while reporting on an Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
Vladislav Dunaienko, an AIPS Young Reporter in 2019, is now an older, wisened Ukrainian who in the space of months went from reporting on football matches in his country to fighting the invading Russian military.
“I created these awards to give importance to what we do,” Merlo said.
“Because usually the journalists are very humble; in one way humble can sometimes also mean stupid.
“Not to promote your profession is crazy. We promote everybody else (in sport) but not ourselves when we do good.
“I can tell you – reading and looking and listening (to all the award nominations) I have learned a lot of things, some things that I could not imagine, and this is the most important thing… it can change lives.
“For this reason, I wanted to recognize Ukraine… because this young guy (Vlad Dunaienko) is really one of millions of young guys and others whose mental health has been destroyed by these events.
“In three months he became a different man, a man perhaps with less hope than before, with less enthusiasm. He will always see the dark side of the moon.
“These are the real stories, this is real life… human rights, match-fixing, corruption, the problems we face every day we must speak about.
“In 1969, for the first time, I went to cover the European Athletics Championships in Athens… the secretary general of AIPS at that time was the man in charge of accreditation there.
“This guy gave me my first accreditation and it changed my life. So, for this reason I hope to change the lives of somebody else.”
Sports journalism tells us about more than sport, it reveals who we are, what drives us, showing our strengths, and exposing our weaknesses.
The work recognized in Doha this week was the pinnacle of more than 1700 submissions from over 130 countries – there was not a single match report or result amongst them, evidence that sports journalism has come of age.
Tracey Holmes won first place in the audio category of the AIPS Sport Media Awards 2021, for her episode of The Ticket titled Afghanistan resuce mission, Australia steps up.