The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11


Jonathan Liew


Jonathan Liew Jonathan Liew is a sportswriter for the Guardian

The conceit of the sports press conference Regular attendees of press conferences at Arsenal football club – in the before-times, when these things still happened – will tell of a mysterious character by the name of First Question Man. Nobody ever discovered who FQM worked for, or if he was even a journalist. His only real talent, if you can call it that, was to sit in the front row and make sure he asked the first question, usually by barking it while everyone was still taking their seats. Why FQM did this was never clear. It can’t have been ego: I never met anybody who knew his real name. Nor was it an attempt to glean some sort of privileged insight: indeed, most of his questions were actually statements: banal bromides beloved of press conferences the world over. “Arsène, you must be happy with the win.” It was to FQM that my thoughts turned when the tennis women’s world No 2 Naomi Osaka announced she would be boycotting press conferences at the French Open in order to preserve her mental health. As a journalist who has sat through thousands of these inane obligations, my first instinct was to sympathise. And yet, the resounding chorus of condemnation and outrage suggests there are some surprisingly strong feelings. For some, the press conference is clearly a sacred way of life. You may take our lives. But you’ll never take our ability to ask an athlete “how they felt it went out there today?” After being fined and threatened with expulsion, Osaka quit the tournament. Meanwhile her stance was universally scorned by Britain’s print media, who as we know have traditionally been the best people to judge standards of behaviour. An “uppity princess”, one newspaper columnist wrote. Others have more soberly pointed out that, for any athlete, facing the media is simply part of the job, and by seceding from the process entirely Osaka is setting a “dangerous precedent”. At this point, it’s worth considering exactly what this “danger” consists of. All over the world, the free press is under unprecedented assault from authoritarian governments, tech giants and online disinformation. In many countries journalists are being killed for doing their job. Meanwhile in Paris, tennis journalists faced the prospect of having to construct an article entirely from their own words. The real problem here, it strikes me, is not Osaka or even the impressive self-importance of the written media. Rather, it’s the press conference itself, which is quite a weird idea, and one that fails at its central function. The great conceit is that it is a direct line from the athlete to the public, which we humble scribes are but the people’s faithful eyes and ears. This hasn’t been true for a while. Athletes have their own direct line to the public, and spoiler: it’s not us. Osaka’s function as an entertainer and corporate billboard is contingent on her playing tennis at an appointed hour, rather than being forced to sit in a room explaining herself to middleaged men. And so the press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but a lowest-common-denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile the young athlete is expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting. There’s an odd ritualistic quality to all this: the same characters in the same seats, the same cliches, all these millions of wasted words, the unopened bottles of mineral water. Is there not a better way of doing this? These aren’t elected politicians. These are simply people who have been elevated to prominence by dint of their hand-eye coordination and superior cardiovascular fitness. Talk to us, please! Or else! This dynamic is exacerbated in women’s tennis, a visible enterprise that takes place not just in a largely white male space, but a white-male-with-free-food space. That sense of engorged entitlement often manifests itself in creepy ways. Question: “I noticed you tweeted a picture. Are you prepared that if you go on a long run you may be held up as a sex symbol, given you’re very good looking?” (Genie Bouchard, Wimbledon 2013.) Question: “You’re a pin-up now, especially in England. Is that good? Do you enjoy that?” (A 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, Wimbledon 2004.) And of course there are plenty of decent, curious journalists out there. This is what makes the chronic lack of self-awareness so self-defeating. We are not the good guys. We are no longer the power. And one of the world’s best athletes would rather quit than have to talk to the press. Rather than scrutinising what that says about her, it may be worth asking what that says about us •



The Guardian Weekly

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