Tennis

OLIVER HOLT: If we can't question heroes, all you get is propaganda

OLIVER HOLT: I hope tennis finds a way to help Naomi Osaka, not punish her… but if we can’t question our heroes, all you get is propaganda. And they’ll suffer just as much as us

  • Journalists need to ask difficult questions or all we’ll get is propaganda  
  • Open press conferences are more important than ever in the current era
  • If the platform is taken away, another level of accountability will be gone 
  • I hope tennis finds a way to help Naomi Osaka because the sport needs her  
  • Find out the latest Tokyo Olympic news including schedule, medal table and results right here.

I still don’t know who asked the question. I know it was a woman and I know that her voice came from a couple of rows behind me in the press room at the Olympic Stadium after the men’s 100m final at the 2017 athletics World Championships in London. I was looking at Usain Bolt when she asked it and when I turned around, she was lost in a sea of faces.

The question was straightforward and pleasingly blunt. She addressed it to bronze medallist Bolt, to gold medallist Justin Gatlin — a two-time drug cheat who had been booed after his victory — and to silver medallist Christian Coleman, who has since been banned from the Tokyo Olympics this summer for repeated failures to comply with drug-testing regulations.

‘The winning time today was the slowest for a gold medallist since 2003,’ the journalist began. Bolt started to laugh scornfully. ‘And the marks in general,’ she said, ‘they were much slower than the last edition of the World Championships. I would like to know from you guys if you think there is any kind of relationship with a stronger anti-doping control.’

Journalists need to ask difficult questions to our sporting heroes or all we’ll get is propaganda

In case you’re wondering, I am not about to join in the orgy of self-flagellation about how despicable it is that journalists should have the temerity to ask sports stars questions in press conferences. The opposite, actually. I always thought one of the main things about being a journalist was that you were supposed to ask questions, ideally challenging questions.

I’m not saying I’m a shining example of the art, by the way. I’m not. But some of the people I have always admired most in sports journalism — Brian Glanville, Matt Lawton, Christine Brennan, Rob Harris, Dan Roan, Paul Kimmage, Charlie Sale, Andy Dillon, Martha Kelner, Ewan MacKenna, Suzy Wrack, Sean Ingle, Riath Al-Samarrai — sit up front and centre at press conferences and ask questions that are sometimes uncomfortable.

That’s what we’re supposed to do. Otherwise, all you get is propaganda. You might as well get your news from a club website or Phil Foden’s Twitter feed, written by a lad sitting in an office in Battersea. ‘News is something which somebody wants suppressed,’ the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst is once supposed to have said. ‘All the rest is advertising.’

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after saying she would not attend press conferences

If you want views that are often refracted by a third party, go to social media. If you’re a journalist who despises press conferences and think all they offer is inanities, don’t go to them. Naomi Osaka might get fined if she doesn’t turn up but you won’t.

Osaka withdrew from the French Open last week, citing concern for her mental health and arguing that her struggle with prolonged bouts of depression would be exacerbated by facing questions from the media, which are a contractual obligation for players competing at Roland Garros and at other Grand Slam tournaments.

I do not know Osaka and I would not presume to second-guess her decision. She made a statement about it that made her rationale very clear. I do know that she is one of the game’s brightest stars and that tennis needs her. 

It also appeared the treatment of Osaka in Paris was heavy-handed. It seemed to many she was being hounded out of the tournament. It is a natural instinct, I hope, to wish that tennis finds a way to help Osaka, not punish her, but what I do not understand is why the corollary to that instinct seems to have been to condemn press conferences as exercises in futility. 

In an era when access to sports stars is controlled more and more tightly, and agents and governing bodies are seeking to vet questions, open press conferences are more important than ever.

When I think of press conferences, I think of Kimmage confronting Lance Armstrong at the Tour of California in 2009, I think of being in Barcelona in 1999 when Sir Alex Ferguson said ‘Football, bloody hell,’ I think of Stamford Bridge in 2004 when Jose Mourinho said ‘I am not one out of a bottle, I am a special one’, I think of listening to the reminiscences of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the press room at Augusta National.

When I think of press conferences, I think of Stamford Bridge in 2004 when Jose Mourinho said ‘I am not one out of a bottle, I am a special one’

I think of being in the audience at the Hudson Theater in New York in 2002 when Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis turned their presser into a brawl, I think of the excruciatingly awkward American Ryder Cup team press conference at Gleneagles in 2014, which told you precisely why the US lose so often to Europe when the world rankings say they should win every time.

Back in 2017, when the journalist asked that question at London’s Olympic Stadium, Bolt was incredulous. He leaned back in his chair, nudged Gatlin and indicated that he would field this one. ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what?’ he said. ‘What’s she saying there?’ The journalist began to repeat the question. ‘I heard you but I’m saying what?’ said Bolt. He was playing to the audience now and some journalists, who wanted to ingratiate themselves with him, tittered obligingly.

There are always a few sycophants among the journalists in press conferences and Bolt’s appearances attracted more than their fair share. She pressed on, undeterred by the laughter. ‘This season and also in the last World Championships,’ she said, ‘we have slower times, much slower. Twenty-one sub-10 times at the Beijing World Championships and at this edition less than 10.’ Bolt stared at her again. ‘First of all, I think everybody up here take that very disrespectful,’ he said.

Really? Disrespectful? In that case, thank God for a little disrespect. What, disrespectful to Gatlin? And to Coleman, an athlete who has subsequently shown such disregard for the sport that he can’t even be bothered to obey the whereabouts rule? Disrespectful? I don’t think so. Just a journalist doing her job well, asking a simple question that deserved a decent answer.

She didn’t get one. Mainly because athletes aren’t used to getting questions like that. Mainly because they are used to operating in controlled environments where all they get is obedient questions as they stand in front of a board with all their sponsors displayed on it. Lack of control terrifies athletes because press conferences bring with them the threat of the unexpected.

Journalists are there to ask the difficult questions to athletes such as Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt

In the modern world, press conferences are about the only time they are exposed to questions that move beyond propaganda. Press conferences still make their hand-lers and their entourage nervous because they can’t control the questions, although that is beginning to change now. Anyway, you can see the footage of this question on YouTube. ‘Usain Bolt shuts down a reporter who asks about drugs,’ the headline on it says admiringly.

Actually, he didn’t shut it down. In fact, he opened himself right up. Bolt and Gatlin got a question they didn’t like and the hostility of their reaction showed the world why athletics was dying. The important thing was that someone had the platform to ask the question in the first place. If that platform is taken away, another level of accountability will be gone and that can’t be good for sport or the people who love it.

Ruthlessness in football goes both ways

After the alacrity with which he turned his back on Everton for Real Madrid, I think we can safely forget the idea that Carlo Ancelotti represents one of the last bastions of honour in football. 

Then again, when you’ve been sacked by Chelsea in a corridor at Goodison Park the year after you led the club to the Double, Ancelotti is entitled to believe that in football management, ruthlessness cuts both ways.

Carlo Ancelotti is entitled to believe that in football management, ruthlessness cuts both ways

Ward-Prowse’s England inclusion makes the most sense

Gareth Southgate made the right choice by including four players who can operate at right-back in his original England squad for the Euros.

Their talent, their versatility and their ability to fill different positions in different systems demanded their inclusion. Now that one of them, Trent Alexander-Arnold, has been ruled out through injury, I hope James Ward-Prowse gets his chance.

It would be tough on Jesse Lingard, but with doubts about the fitness of Jordan Henderson and less cover in that position, not to mention his devastating ability with the dead-ball, the inclusion of Ward-Prowse makes more sense.




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