Back in the days of Lance Armstrong it took two courageous journalists, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, to uncover the duplicity of doping that the Texan was undertaking on a mass scale to a gullible public. I have to admit, and I’m big enough to say it, that I was one of those taken in by the story of the cancer sufferer who came back from near death to win the Tour de France seven times. I bought the books and the yellow bangle. I cycled the Col de Madone to retrace his footsteps. I bought a Trek racing bike. I bought the lie.
I, like many others, wanted desperately to believe the story but it was the Sunday Times that had the guts, in the face of unbelievable pressure and lawsuits, to publish, expose, and back to the hilt its journalists and bring down Armstrong and the cartel around him. That’s investigative sports journalism at its finest and is why the profession exists. Finding a truth when it’s unpalatable, uncomfortable and unpopular is a remarkable thing to do and then telling it to a public that don’t really want to hear it is once-in-a-lifetime stuff. We don’t like to see heroes zeroed. It’s all too difficult and the world that it exposes is far from the rose-tinted lens that, in general, people prefer and want to believe. But sometimes it goes wrong. Journalists do get it wrong but the essential thing is that in a free-speech world, avenues are explored and what’s presented at face value is challenged. That’s healthy and it’s democratic.
Most people view sport as a pastime. Something to watch on a Saturday or Sunday. Something to get engrossed in. Something to follow. Something to support. Something to believe in. Something to marvel at. And that is just fine. That’s what it should be. But on the other side of the fence, professional sport is a money game to a large extent and wherever money is involved, especially large, eye-watering sums, that’s when it can get dark. Poking sensibilities is akin to stirring a hornet’s nest and the resultant fall-out from readers and those involved can be tough to weather. But it’s essential.
Sport is a tricky sector. In soccer it’s a minefield. Journalists get routinely banned from press conferences for asking a question in a negative way, riling the manager or upsetting a player. In rugby union it’s the same with teams favouring journalists, whilst excluding others. The Olympic Games has a rumoured blacklist that can exclude an infringing journalist for life no matter who they work for. National bodies sit on tenterhooks and dance precariously with favoured journalists and commercial broadcasters. Sports journalists have even lost their lives such is the power of the pen and death threats are par for the course. Passions run so high in sport that it almost makes politics look dull.
The America’s Cup has been a rich vein to mine and is one of the most story-ready events on the calendar. The combination of rich titans of industry and sailors full of one-liners, axes to grind and beefs to bare is potent. It’s a never-ending gold-mine of points of views, cultures, technology, sporting excellence and politics. Furthermore, there are some of the best photo journalists operating in sports in the Cup arena and the new video bloggers are bringing new life to fresh media with youthful enthusiasm and dynamite analysis. The dying art is the pure-form scribes in the Bob Fisher, Angus Philipps, Stuart Alexander, John Roberson style and there’s no-one today operating on their level. I feel strongly that this Cup has seen some great new talent come to the fore around the world and the stories they have crafted, narrated and exposed to a locked-down audience have been astonishing.
So I read with a heavy sigh that one of the main outlets in New Zealand has been refused accreditation just a week out from the main event. The New Zealand Herald has reportedly been excluded from the deserted media centre in Auckland and whilst many know that there’s been a significant back-story between the paper, Team New Zealand and ACE regarding the government backing and a confidential audit, it feels like a cheap shot and needs resolving. Quickly.
My view is that the Herald has done a great job reporting this Cup, bringing the event to not only a domestic audience but a global one too. Their commentary and analysis has been a lifeline for those of us stuck on the other side of the world looking on and cutting them out just ahead of the Match leaves us fans an outlet down at a time when we need as much info and entertainment as possible.
Take the view from a ‘still’ locked down UK where domestic sport has been a tough, lifeless watch. The national game – soccer – has been so dull played behind closed doors in windy, crowd-less stadiums and made even duller by Manchester City competing effectively in their own league. The rugby has been the same and is even more dire because England lost to the Welsh…and the Scots – but that’s just my view. Formula 1 has been in hibernation for the winter and then when it emerges it lacks something without the fans and the razzmatazz. Women’s sport has been cancelled judiciously and the cricket hasn’t clicked like it should. It’s been a hard time to be a sports fan.
The America’s Cup has filled a significant sporting void in the calendar magnificently and the local media in the form of the New Zealand Herald and the Stuff website have done a stellar job in bringing the event to our tablets and laptops, both during racing and in the huge gaps in between. They’ve kept the interest going, have participated meaningfully in the press conferences and their enthusiasm for the event is something that just isn’t replicable elsewhere in the world. Take this event literally anywhere else and you wouldn’t get a local media so bought-in and enthusiastic to the Cup. It would be a byline and a staffer rather than a full team of journalists, ex-sailors, analysts and enthusiastic new media specialists.
Snuffing out and snubbing the Herald smacks to me of unfairly penalising those doing their job to the best of their ability. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and remember that junior journalists very quickly become senior journalists and they won’t forget this treatment. Sorry it doesn’t wash with me banning journalists in a minority sport or any sport for that matter, especially for an event that needs the coverage desperately and to hell with the consequences of saying so. It needs to be said, someone has to say it and it needs to be addressed.
A helicopter view with a global perspective should be taken and pipes of peace need to be smoked all round. These are hard times around the world and the America’s Cup is an essential light relief. The point has been made and Team New Zealand and ACE are bigger than this. Do the right thing. Re-instate the Herald’s accreditation.