Feats of gonzo journalism have lost their lustre since George Plimpton’s pioneering days as a universal amateur

A documentary about the writer’s remarkable sporting exploits is to air this year

Share

The CNN presenter, former Daily Mirror editor and well-known exhibitionist Piers Morgan recently suffered a fractured rib after facing a 90mph over from the Australian fast bowler Brett Lee. He wrote up the experience in the Mail on Sunday, recounting how dangerous it had been. “This wasn’t about avoiding getting out any more; this was about avoiding getting killed,” he said. After the final ball he staggered towards his family. “I’m still alive,” he gasped.

The response to Morgan’s stunt was a mixture of cruel mirth from those who enjoyed watching him suffer and incredulity from those who viewed the exercise as needlessly reckless. There was little sympathy and much less admiration for an experiment that was intended to demonstrate the sporting gulf between amateur and professional.

Much has changed since George Plimpton pioneered the concept of participatory or “gonzo” journalism, leaving the American public in awe of his bravado and grateful for his elegantly written insights. Plimpton was seen as the “universal amateur” who would venture into the worlds of professional sport on behalf of the millions who could get no nearer the action than the bleacher seats. He began by persuading his editors at Sports Illustrated to arrange for him to participate in an all-star game at Yankee Stadium in which he pitched to the great Willie Mays. People in the crowd stood to applaud. He wrote a book about it called Out of My League.

Such was the response that Plimpton made a career as “a collector of experiences”. He played basketball with the Boston Celtics and quarterback for the Detroit Lions during pre-season training. The resulting publication, Paper Lion, was described by the Wall Street Journal as “the best book ever about football or anything”.

Plimpton was the journalistic equivalent of the method actor. He learned to box and went into the ring with the world light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. In one of his most difficult experiments, he played triangle for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. As Plimpton’s notoriety spread, newspapers and magazines carried headlines and cartoons about him. “Let George Do It” became a national catchphrase.

The power of the journalistic device of “participation” became confused by his fame. Some forgot he was a reporter. That was the beginning of the end for gonzo journalism. We see it now in the television style exemplified by Louis Theroux but many viewers are irritated by the theatricality of gesticulating news reporters who attempt to “become the story”. As for the window into the hidden world of professional sport that Plimpton provided in the 1960s and 1970s, it long ago lost its exclusivity. These days the sports media is dominated by  ex-professionals who set out the intricacies of their game. There is not much virgin snow left for reporters to tread.

In Plimpton’s time, his locker-room colleagues were impressed with his efforts. After Morgan faced up to Lee, the former England captain and now broadcaster Michael Vaughan tweeted: “Rumours  @piersmorgan has a broken rib… I am sure you all will give him plenty of sympathy!!!”

A documentary will be shown on the PBS America channel on 16 February: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself. A lifelong admirer and friend of Ernest Hemingway, Plimpton’s real love was the literary journal Paris Review, which he edited and funded into his final years. It published Updike, Mailer, Marquez and Atwood. Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote were among those who attended his literary parties. Some thought he could have been a greater writer. They looked at his gonzo journalism and accused him of being a “dilettante”. Years later, Morgan is being called a lot worse.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform