Seeing is not believing in an instant replay age

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The Independent Online
I HAVE never attended a match at a World Cup finals. This is not a complaint, or even a plaintive request, simply a fact. Like most people, I have always experienced the World Cup through the medium of television. And I know for another fact that if I were to be present at one of the matches in France 98 now, I would probably struggle to believe in it.

In our televisually dominated society it can come as something as a shock to see a sporting event simply taking place in front of one's eyes - to experience sport as they did in the olden days. Observing a ball rolling about in a net, or a digital track-side clock frozen on an improbably low figure, our instinct is to suspend disbelief until the pictures, and commentary, confirm it all.

Seeing, nowadays, is not quite believing. Of course, as a sports journalist, I am in a privileged position when it comes to gaining access to the action. But at any major happening, such as the Olympic Games, the watching press have television monitors to watch replays of any incident of note. It makes life much easier. Indeed, for events such as the 100 metres, where eight men or women flash across the line together, it makes life possible.

Big screens now offer the same facility to the spectator. It is not just the Olympics - football clubs are doing it, too. Arsenal ram a high-volume action replay down your throat at half-time, while Tottenham have developed a routine of playing back incidents during lulls in play.

The nature of spectating is being transformed - in fact, it is being homogenised. And while we all gain in terms of information, something is lost in the process.

For one thing, the phenomenon of, shall we say, imaginative recollection is becoming a thing of the past. That free-kick which curved into the net like a boomerang - it took a deflection off a defender. The scorer who was a mile offside when the ball was played - well he wasn't. The pictures prove it.

Whole tranches of pub conversation have been killed stone dead, although there seem to be enough other issues to fill the gap.

As far as the fourth estate is concerned the leeway that was afforded to reporters before the television age - a leeway that was often scandalously abused - has now ceased to exist.

Paradoxically, most of the readers who peruse a report the following day are likely to be more fully appraised of whether the ball crossed the line or the tackle was intentional than was the writer as he sat in his press box, working towards a deadline. They have seen it on the television.

Often, too, the reader is in a position to be better informed in terms of post-match or post-race quotes. On several occasions, particularly at large events such as the Olympics when edition deadlines are pressing, I have found myself phoning the office to check what Linford said to Brendan immediately after the race knowing that it will be half an hour before the sprinter clears the mass of other television and radio interviews and is nabbed for the benefit of the written press. Such is life for the reporter in the technological age.

So why be there?

Who said that? There's no call for that, thank you.

Well go on. Justify it.

Answer One: To quote an incorrigible former Fleet Street sports editor: "Where we score is the quality of our reportage."

No? All right then.

Answer Two: Like a tennis player, you have to go for the angles. Background research, or a novel viewpoint, can contribute to a report which includes something not available from the televised coverage.

On occasions that viewpoint can sometimes be geographically different to that of the cameras. Three years ago at the European Cup in Lille I was chatting to some British athletes in a dug-out along the side of the triple jump pits when Jonathan Edwards flew over like some kind of supersonic plane en route for the longest distance ever covered in the event. It was awe inspiring.

During that competition, along with a radio reporter, I also witnessed Linford Christie whooping and bounding about inside a locked room after a particularly satisfying victory in the 200 metres, for all the world like a diver decompressing after a deep-sea mission.

The rules of the game have changed for sporting scribes. What happened is now given; why, how, and what happened next are the questions which have to be answered.

The overall approach works towards a rationale fondly and often expressed by one of my esteemed colleagues in the press box: "We're not here to watch it; we're here to report it."

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