When Cassius Clay went into orbit I found it difficult to understand why older sportswriters developed a prejudice against him

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The old sportswriters I knew received no rewards for their vintage. They still had to meet deadlines. They had to argue with hotel telephonists, plead with telex operators, struggle with baggage, and climb the stairs to press boxes sited in thrombosis territory.

One had the reputation of falling asleep at ringside. Another drove his car into the blue-painted wall of a parking lot - I know this to be true because I was sitting alongside him - proclaiming, "Damn, I thought it was the sky."

When health became fashionable, a boxing writer of wise and independent virtue retreated to a corner of his office to sit beneath a sign that read: "Here we drink, smoke and screw."

Some years ago a friend, Frank McGhee, who was big in the old Daily Mirror, and in semi-retirement reports perceptively on football for the Observer, had the idea for a book about sports journalism with the splendid title, Forgive Us Our Press Passes. You can probably imagine the stir this caused in the trade and the effect on the divorce rate had it come to fruition.

Without lusting to find out personally, I suppose that everyone's later years are sapped endurance ("I look first for stamina," said one sports editor) and fading memory. Not a happy bunch, I thought, on many nights, hearing old sportswriters tell flat stories of butchered text and fatuous suggestions while demanding crustily the silence of apprenticeship - "eyes and ears open, mouth shut" - from their younger brethren.

Recently, the wife of a troubled football manager supposed that the attitude of sportswriters, meaning the profession generally, has changed a great deal, especially since the explosion in television coverage. A big difference, you may agree, is the decline in objectivity. This was embarrassingly evident during Euro 96 when English football writers not only adopted the role of cheerleaders but literally stood and applauded the efforts of Terry Venables' team.

The American author Roger Khan, a man of vast experience in the field, recalled a time when sportswriters were instructed on their unimportance. "A generation of sports editors preached anti-ego sermons," he said. "Nobody cares about you, your ulcer, your bent dreams." Few of them ever let you forget that even the best pieces would probably end up as a cod's overcoat.

Bearing objectivity in mind, there was a great deal to be learned some years ago from No Cheering in the Press Box, a book by a Chicago baseball writer, Jerry Holtzman, that contained the reminiscences of much older contemporaries. One, John R Tunis, then 84, had composed a score of books on young athletes struggling and winning. He said: "I've written what I wanted and tried to explain there is more to life than throwing a football."

Nobody meditated on sport with greater perception and style than Red Smith, who was still contributing three columns a week to the New York Times when he died in his 75th year. After a visit to London, he said: "When you go through Westminster Abbey, you find that, excepting for that little Poets' Corner, almost all the statues are of killers. Of generals and admirals whose specialty was human slaughter. I don't think they're such glorious heroes. I've tried not to exaggerate the glory of athletes."

Nor should anyone. In the wider scheme of things, sport is trivia. It can excite and make the day after victory a better day for communities and nations, but anyone with the task of reporting it should abide by the rule of circumspection.

Probably, I could have been more generous to Naseem Hamed when reporting on his defeat of Tom Johnson at the London Arena last weekend to become a double featherweight champion. It was something that Hamed's promoter, Frank Warren, raised, although without rancour. Warren's view is that the irritation Hamed causes is generational. There is something in this. When Muhammad Ali, as Cassius Clay, first went into orbit I found it difficult to understand why older sportswriters of that time developed a prejudice against him, making negative comparisons with past heavyweight champions.

Maybe a similar fault applies to some of us today, and maybe we are reacting subconsciously to the wilder claims that are made for Hamed, the propaganda drummed up on television and in mass-circulation newspapers. He is of his time, which for some us is a different time altogether.

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