Beyond the noise of a sporting competition – whether it’s a FIFA World Cup qualifier, an Olympic 100m sprint or a junior basketball match on a suburbs – lurks a complex web of stories that has given rise to the growing genre of sports journalism, quite distinct from 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 history, a group of sports journalists from all continents gathered in the same city to have their work recognized at the FIFA Awards Gala. International Sports Press Association (AIPS).
Photographic portfolios, investigations, color pieces and broadcast documentaries have revealed an incredible depth of storytelling excellence that often goes unnoticed.
Thus began the gold medal for “best piece of color” by Wufei Yu (China) and Will Ford (USA) published in Runner’s World.
It’s a haunting tale of those who survived the tragedy of China’s Yellow River Stone Forest Ultramarathon in 2021.
The experience counted for nothing as a freak cold snap left riders stranded between checkpoints, unable to move forward, too cold to back up. Of the leading group of six, only one survived.
The story asks how it all went so wrong, addressing the survivors, some of whom are still grappling with what they went through. It’s not just reporting a sporting event, it’s 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 more humanity that you can bring out through his lens – especially in the social, political and anthropological sense.”
In the far west of Ghana, on the banks of the Pra River, lies a small town described by journalist Francis Hena as “inspirational 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 fishermen, dream of an alternate universe where they are great footballers playing on a global stage: they play for the Pra Babies Football Club where a young coach struggles to teach the boys , to nurture and equip them to instill in them a sense of pride in who they are and where life might take them.
“It’s very difficult,” coach Roland Fiifi Ackon told Hema. “You don’t get anyone’s support.”
Hema focused on Pra Babies but there are teams like that all over Ghana, that’s where the journey began for many of the hundreds of Ghanaians who now play in every major league in the world.
“Young footballers in Ghana and Africa are struggling a lot,” Hema said.
“I hope my story on Pra Babies will change the narrative and that key stakeholders will give grassroots footballers the attention they need to help them reach their full potential.
“What motivates me as a sports journalist is seeing my stories impact the lives of people around me and society at large.”
French journalist Matthieu Darnon won the video documentary award for his expose of the 28 seconds in the life of former F1 driver Romain Grosjean where he was literally on fire.
The driver hit a metal barrier during the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, splitting his car in two as it exploded into a ball of fire.
His wife was watching live on TV thinking she was widowed. His best friend was commentating on the race trying to maintain control and consistency as his mind raced out of control, flooding with emotion as the devastating scene unfolded before him.
Grosjean himself said he will never be the same again, like his car back then, his life is now in two parts – before and after November 29, 2020.
Darnon, the documentary filmmaker, said the journalists who do what he does are in a privileged position.
“As sports journalists, we have the great fortune to follow people who test human limits, mentally or physically, which brings them to situations that normal people could not even imagine,” he said. .
“In fact, it’s quite rare to see your husband almost perish in the flames live on TV.
“That’s what I tried to tell in this documentary with Romain’s experience in his car… what his family and friends endured during those scary seconds of his accident.”
I have neither the time nor the ability to list here in detail the merits of each winner, but I wish I could. This little snapshot puts into context what it means to be a sports journalist.
There have been 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 each other again. never their family.
There is a story of the Algerian men’s football team of the 1980s who were unaware that they had been doped by their Russian coach until a number of them later gave birth to children who had all mental disabilities.
And there’s one about a baseball team created in Fukushima to try to heal people after a nuclear meltdown and tsunami left them broken and bereft.
At the start of the awards ceremony, held in the middle of the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha – one of the venues for the 2022 FIFA 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 the Arabic channel Al Jazeera before she was shot dead in May this year while covering an Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
Vladislav Dunaienko, a young AIPS reporter in 2019, is now an older and wiser Ukrainian who, in the space of a few months, has gone from reporting on football matches in his country to fighting against the invading Russian army.
“I created these awards to give importance to what we do,” Merlo said.
“Because journalists are usually very humble; in a way, humble can sometimes also mean stupid.
“Not promoting your profession is crazy. We promote everyone (in sport) but not ourselves when we do good.
“I can tell you – reading, watching and listening to (all the award nominations) I learned a lot of things, some things that I couldn’t imagine, and that’s the most important thing. .it can change lives.
“For this reason, I wanted to recognize Ukraine…because this young man (Vlad Dunaienko) is truly one of the millions of young men and others whose sanity has been destroyed by these events.
“In three months he has become 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 issues we face every day that we need to talk about.
“In 1969, for the first time, I went to cover the European Athletics Championships in Athens… the AIPS General Secretary at the time was the man in charge of accreditation there.
“This guy gave me my first credential and it changed my life. So for that reason, I hope to change someone else’s life.”
Sports journalism tells us more than sports, it reveals who we are, what motivates us, highlights our strengths and exposes our weaknesses.
The recognized work in Doha this week was the pinnacle of more than 1,700 submissions from more than 130 countries – there was not a single match or result report among them, proof 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 Rescue Mission, Australia Intensifies.