An Ode to (Good) Sports Writing

Killian Down

What’s something everyone around you knows you’re obsessed with and why?

Someone once described Mancunian band Elbow’s album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, as an epic of the everyday, a romance of the real. It was an allusion to lyrics which draw on reserves of emotion usually saved for grand romance, but spill out in Guy Garvey’s gentle drawl and find shape in the banal.

It is that same pithy description which comes to mind each and every time I read a piece of sports writing which seeks to escape the blandness of familiarity. Over a nine, ten month season, the taste of vanilla pervades the sporting realm; there are only so many verbs Roget’s can offer to describe an inflatable sphere entering a netted hoop at velocity; only so many adjectives before you arrive back at ‘graceful’. The law of diminishing marginal utility dictates that you can only generate so much fervour through the stony tones of a narrator over a neatly-cut highlight reel – only so much hype can be piped into the minds of the sporting masses.

The remainder of the contemporary sporting landscape is populated by the humdrum of stats that flow in fluid form across the screen. They fulfil their destiny to be memorised and recycled across the counter of a bar, symbolising nothing more than a cable TV subscription and a need to fill a silence.

Tomorrow’s game will bring with it another slew of numbers, and the accompanying mandatory nods of understanding, where there is no understanding at all.

It is the job of great sports writers to add lovely swirls of raspberry red and nuclear green to the block of vanilla ice-cream, like veins carrying reminders of the little moments which can compel, even amongst the drabness of a mid-conference game in February. A nudge which illuminates a nothing game, a one-line explosion which reinvents a movement seen ten thousand times before. The space between periods, properly crafted, can bring about salivation in a sports fan that the trotting out of empty numbers never can.

At its best, the subject matter is near-irrelevant. I would never subject myself to the horrors of watching a five-day cricket test. Cricket highlights are the only videos I would have buffer for eternity in place of ever being exposed to their contents. Like baseball and soccer, cricket can only reveal its delights to those who have been inculcated from birth.

And yet, I would happily allow the passion of the dedicated spectator to flood the white crinkles of the newspaper in front of me and draw up the drama that could never show itself to me in real time.

I am obsessed with good sportswriting. Why? Because as it stains my dragging index finger with ink, it stains my knees with chlorophyll. Because it plucks me from my kitchen table and leaves grit from first base in the grooves of the sole of my shoes. Because it is theatre, within theatre.