Open season for prose

No analogy too elevated, no description too celestial, no moralism too sententious. That's sports writing. We've had Sampras. Here comes Tiger Woods. By Boyd Tonkin

In the course of When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's terrific documentary about the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle", Norman Mailer almost swoons with joy at the memory of Muhammad Ali's right-hand leads. The writer recollects that Ali, on the way to winning back his title in Zaire, tormented George Foreman with a fusillade of the raking, long-distance punches that signal a fighter's utter contempt for his opponent. "It was", purred the thickset but sprightly heavyweight of American literature, "beautiful".

Just how beautiful is actual bodily harm? Ali's growing inability to dodge that sort of punishment hastened the onset of Parkinson's disease. Yet the blood-and-guts of boxing, which has stirred lush prose from posh authors since the early 1800s, merely triggers in an acute form the syndrome shared by all sports writing that aims higher than a simple match report. By some strange quirk of history, rule-bound feats of physical prowess have turned into the last arena where absolute moral and aesthetic standards can apply without the slightest pinch of salt or faintest trace of irony. Sports journalists - and the literary wannabes who mimic them - have colonised the high ground of judgement.

In the arts, and even ethics, that terrain was left vacant by the advent of Modernism and its offshoots in philosophy. At the butt-end of the Modernist century, few self-respecting critics could unblushingly describe a new film, poem or concerto as "beautiful". That sort of vocabulary now belongs to the deft punch, the long pass, the late cut. No wonder that the most feted footballer of his age speaks and even acts like a Romantic poet from the last decades before the 20th-century blues came down. And, just as Rimbaud vanished at the peak of his glory, so has Cantona.

As today's sole cheerleaders for classical values, sports writers love to judge character as much as performance. "What a fighter!" marvels another veteran man of letters, George Plimpton, at the close of When We Were Kings. Then he widens his approval of Ali: "What a man!" Boy's Own stories of grit and pluck still flourish on the sports pages, as if in some safari park of high-Victorian morality. In his compelling new book about the 1996 Grand Prix season, Racers, Richard Williams remarks that Damon Hill "had no need of the title of world champion to call himself a man".

No critic seriously asks the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Irvine Welsh or Damien Hirst to prove themselves as men. (Ernest Hemingway was almost the final writer for whom the macho gesture mattered much. To beef up his manliness, he shot an awful lot - and the last thing he shot was himself.) Yet the rising starts of sport still happily pursue this kind of corny uplift. When the prodigious Tiger Woods - who plays in the British Open at Royal Troon this week - won the US Masters by a record margin, he wrote to thank the Augusta club for the week in which he had "become a man".

At the other end of the spectrum of virtue, Richard Williams typified press reaction to Mike Tyson's ear-biting frenzy when he called the boxer's attack on Evander Holyfield "demeaning and disgusting". Go in search of spotless heroes, and you're bound to find a few snarling ogres nearby. The antique world of pitch, track and ring still divides neatly into paragons and pariahs.

In fact, the ghosts of the muscular-Christian headmasters and Greek-revival barons who codified sport in the 19th century still crop up in some very unlikely places. The finest of all tributes to fair play on the cricket field was written not by some Home Counties codger but by a Trotskyist from Trinidad - CLR James, whose Beyond a Boundary ranks among the finest of all sports-inspired books. As a parting flourish, James acclaims the dashing but gracious West Indies squad of the early 1960s. "Thomas Arnold, Thomas Hughes and the old Master [WG Grace] himself", he writes, "would have recognised Frank Worrell as their boy."

Elsewhere, James suggests that we will only answer Tolstoy's question "What is art?" when "we learn to integrate our vision of Walcott off the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo". Back in 1963, that sort of pairing would have sounded brazen and cheeky. Now, it seems, the entire Western canon has trundled backwards from the Post-Modern review pages into the pre-modern sports supplements.

Tale Pete Sampras, who prevailed at Wimbledon a week ago with a metronomic rigour that had reporters raiding two millenniums of European culture for their suprlatives. The Mirror dubbed him a "Greek god" who moved "as swiftly as Apollo" (do they mean Hermes?). In The Sunday Times, the tennis correspondent noted that Sampras made the game look like child's play - "but then music was easy for Mozart".

As for the Mail, it finessed the champion's stolid image with its claim that "if seeing Michelangelo put the finishing touches to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without dropping the paint pot was boring, then Sampras is boring". Apollo, Mozart, Michelangelo - if thwacking a furry ball around a small patch of turf puts you in such company, where does that leave arts writing proper?

The answer is: still sunk, more or less contentedly, in the nuances of irony, paradox and pluralism that make critical gush sound absurd, whether you apply it to poetry or pop. The musicologist Wilfred Mellers courted ridicule when he first maintained that Lennon and McCartney had written some of the greatest songs since Schubert. That may well be no more than the simple truth. Couched in those bald terms, it struck the scoffers as critical grandstanding of a kind that we can only take these days from the guys in the real grandstands.

Cynics might argue that the international sports business feeds on hyperbole. In a time of stock-market flotations, multi-millionaire agents and stratospheric satellite deals, nobody - least of all the sports-bloated media - wants to undersell their assets.

Yet good sports writing is now consumed by readers who don't remotely fit the old mould of the buff. Neither diehard team fans nor number-crunching anoraks, they seek on sports pages the tales of virtuosity and courage that modern art - and even modern politics - can no longer deliver. In this light, sports coverage appears as an island of absolute values in a sea of relativism - which is curious, given that the blazered mafiosi who run most sports make the most outrageous artists look like hermit saints.

The danger comes when stars and journalists forget that the laws of their charmed circle cannot be enforced elsewhere. Pundits who hinted that Tiger Woods could run for President when his golfing days are done should learn the difference between games and life. Sebastian Coe might have kept his 800m record for a full 16 years, but as an MP he proved to be a flat-footed straggler who lost a Cornish seat to Labour for the first time in decades.

Even the idol-worshipping fans can spot the boundary cord where reality begins. As saviour of Pakistan (the cricket team), Imran Khan enthused an entire nation. As would-be saviour of Pakistan (the state), he justly scored a humiliating duck. Athletic skill may catch up with beauty sometimes, but it can never outrun truthn

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