Sport: When reality pops the sports journalist's bubble

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The Independent Online
A FORMER colleague, who shall remain Ken Mays of the Daily Telegraph, had a favourite rhetorical device when conversation turned to travel.

If ever a person - oh foolish, unwitting person! - asked him if he had visited a country - for argument's sake, let's call it Erewhon - he would expostulate on these lines: "Have I been to Erewhon? Have I been to Erewhon? I've been to Erewhon eight times. Eight times. I'll tell you what - I've been round the world so many times I've met myself coming back."

Nobody travelled further or more often than Kenny. And that was an order.

Even in this era of satellite television packages and omnipresent news and picture agencies, sports journalists still get to visit a fair quota of foreign fields. Every sport worth its name is hitched to an international rota, a grand prix or a world series or a European tour, something sponsors and media can climb aboard. Asked to name the process right now, the Pentagon would probably suggest something like Operation Sustained Jamboree.

"All this travel" - I hear you ask - "does it broaden the mind?" Other questions - "Call that a real job?" or "How do you get away with it?" - are, sadly, beyond my earshot. In my experience, most travel that has a sporting context does the opposite of broadening the mind. For the travelling reporter, life narrows down to the essentials: taxis (plus bills), accreditation, schedule of events, hotel room, place in stadium, telephone line, deadline, meals (plus bills), beer (plus bills) and, ideally, stories (plus quotes).

Some may decide to do a Trevor Brooking - which, for the benefit of those unaware of the former England midfielder's touring routine, involved fitting in a visit to a cultural site. Any art gallery, cathedral or museum will do.

But, by and large, such adornments do not alter the purpose of the visit. For the duration of each sporting event, you and your colleagues are within a tough little bubble, a bubble which you can inhabit in virtually any land at any time of the year, a bubble in which the same questions and preoccupations recur.

In retrospect, the valuable parts of this not-so-grand tour are those which create discomfort. I do not refer to a lack of leg room on the plane, or a rip-off tariff on the mini-bar.

Havana. As I lay my cutlery down upon my plate for the last time, a young woman arrives at my restaurant table and asks if she can take the scraps for her child. She has a bag ready.

Belfast. Our taxi driver takes us around a bit on the way back to the airport, offering a commentary. The streets we had driven through two days earlier are revealed as an interlinking jigsaw of nationalist and loyalist territories, marked respectively by tricolours flying from buildings or lamp posts and houses and paving slabs painted with the Union flag. It is like noticing one ant in the garden, and then being able to see nothing but ants, a garden teeming with ants.

Atlanta. Dawn breaks over Olympic Park and a small army of peak-capped FBI agents are busy placing little flags into the grass to mark the landing points of shrapnel from the bomb which had exploded a few hours earlier, killing two and wounding many more.

Atlanta. 50 cameras focus upon the front door of a small flat, inside which dwells the prime suspect for the bombing, an event security guard who is publicly accused and metaphorically flayed by the American newspapers and television networks. No charges are subsequently laid against him.

Atlanta. Two days after the 1996 Olympics' closing ceremony, the awnings, tapes, and adverts in the city centre start to be pulled down - and the streets, almost imperceptibly, fill with people whom you would instinctively cross a street to avoid.

Where have they all been?

Split. Running along the coastal road, and stopping near a huge TV mast on the hillside gazing out as the sun sets over the Adriatic. Returning to see families seated at the poolside of my hotel, eating, chattering, listening to music, allowing their children to sample wine far into the warm summer night. Then I recalled how the face of our minibus driver had hardened as he spoke of the Serbs, whose shells were to land on that TV mast and many other parts of the medieval city a couple of years later.

Split. When the Yugoslav flag is raised in the stadium before the 1990 European Athletics Championships, there is whistling and booing. When the Croatian flag is raised, there is a sustained tumult. At the time, we regard it as a bit over-the-top - but a nice piece of opening ceremony colour. Next time it will mean more.