What are sportswriters for?

Prof Lincoln Allison considers himself a sportsman. He does not like sportswriters, “the exact opposite of the sportsman”, he says. Does he have a point?

I regard myself as a sportsman. By this I mean that an important, essential part of my life is a kind of competitive engagement – with nature, with my Lower Self and with other people. This engagement should be as complex and diverse as possible. In my case its prime form is participation in a variety of organised games, but any physical challenge will do and gambling and partisan support are a lot better than nothing.

Sport could never be the main thing in life – its whole essence and purpose is to offset the main things, though its existence transcends them. Nevertheless, most of the best friends, the best moments and the best laughs in my life have come through sport and I am properly grateful.

I am only talking about some sports; most leave me with Johnsonian coldness – a curiosity about why they are done at all and no interest in whether they are done well. But live and let live. My view of elite and professional sport – other than in cases where I have become a partisan and feel part of the narrative – is that it has a very minor role.

I watch it when there’s nothing else to do, it’s a useful lowest common denominator in conversation, etc. I find it interesting how good Roger Federer is at tennis, but “excellence” does not excite me per se. It is actually imperceptible in many cases: you just can’t see how fast a runner runs, a swimmer swims, etc. Insofar as contemporary elite sport is about character, it is mainly about bad character – narrow, dim, fanatical, dishonest people. What I like about sport is the narrative, the humour, the clubbability – and the good guys.

The sportswriter is the exact opposite of the sportsman. He has a trade union solidarity that all sport is good and that being good at it justifies pretty well anything. He condones the state view that sport is a “pyramid” which exists to serve its apex. There is something very Soviet about contemporary sportswriting: it wants Performance, however absurd the activity, and it wants show trials of those who do not perform. It never, ever challenges the assumptions or questions the meaning of established sport – in that respect it lacks the critical and analytic dimensions which most other forms of writing possess. There is no proper debate about the nature and value of sport as there is with art or religion.

Nothing divides the sportsman from the sportswriter like the Olympic Games. I regard them as a kind of festival of de-humanisation. Many of the activities for which you win a medal have none of the virtues of sport; they take people’s childhoods away and, instead of getting them to play lots of things, gets them to perform some simple task which could be done better by an animal or a machine.

Everybody should run the 100 metres; nobody should do it for a living (just like sex, really!).

If you want to be good at most Olympic sport you should a) live under a totalitarian regime b) subject yourself to bullying c) give up all sports other than the targeted one d) take lots of drugs & e) forget the meaning of the word “fun”.

Some sportswriters love the Olympics. They even like that combination of pointlessness and child abuse known as gymnastics, which was stuck in the Olympics to appease Teutonic body-fanaticism and its objections to the vulgarity of English organised games.

I recently came across a passage written about a hundred years ago by Sir Flinders Petrie, the Egyptologist who was also a bit of a pundit. He said that, up to a point, he approved of the modern cult of organised games. But that point was reached when they were no longer mainly about participation. That grown men were earning a living by writing about sporting contests and equally grown men were wasting their time reading the stuff was a sure sign of decadence. I think I now agree with him, albeit reluctantly.

I no longer swallow the convenient state myth, swallowed whole (like most myths) by sportswriters, that the increasingly immoral world of elite professional sport relates symbiotically to the sport I love, that it provides “role models” and stimulates healthy imitation. It doesn’t and it’s got beyond the point that we should want it to.

I suppose my anger (which slightly surprises me) is like that of a religious zealot. For me the True Faith has been utterly corrupted and my greatest venom is reserved for the parasitic priests who have condoned the corruption.

I think that we have an excessive deference to sportswriters and we ought to regard them as stupid because they know less about their chosen subject than other writers and offer less criticism and analysis of it. However, they may be doomed in a generation.

It is already the case that there is far better writing about sport on the web than in the newspapers. During the writing of this, I read the Daily Telegraph report of a football match I was interested in (Burnley-Leeds since you ask) which was badly written and uninformative. I was then sent an excellent account written by a friend. This is a field in which amateurs do it better than professionals.

Professor Lincoln Allison is the emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick and visiting professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His website is

This is a personal commentary by Prof Allison, and (as if you need to be told) in no way represents the official view or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association. Exercise your right to reply by posting your views in the Comment box below

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