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


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

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

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lib Dem MPs have criticised David Cameron's decision to ask the retail tycoon Sir Philip Green (above) to lead a spending review when his Arcadia company is registered in the name of his Monaco-based wife  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat