Sports, the arts and the gloriously obscure

On Saturday night, while serendipitously flipping through channels, I reached ESPN Classic and for the first time watched “Bud Greenspan: At the Heart of the Games.”

This was released in early 2008, right before what would be Greenspan’s final Olympics in Beijing. It was a documentary film about how the Olympic documentary filmmaker came to be, and why he excelled at it, and for two incredible hours I was transfixed at the behind-the-scenes details of a master of his form.

Greenspan essentially had the field to himself when he finally dug in and devoted himself to the form, starting with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His eye for the well-told story of obscure athletes from small nations competing in little-known sports (at least to average Americans like myself) is well-known.

What I was struck by the most were his tales of the “losers,” of those who never medalled, barely showed up and sometimes struggled to finish.

In Mexico City in 1968, the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith were the unforgettable and iconic images of a contentious time. And then there was Greenspan’s telling of Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari’s determination to cross the finish line, dead last, hours after Mamo Wolde had been awarded the gold medal.

Some might think this was whitewashing controversy with a heartwarming tale to please the establishment — the Olympic ideal of a classic expression of the human spirit was uplifted, after all. But this was the essential Greenspan, as he famously, and unapologetically continued along this vein through Beijing.

I wrote as the London Games began that the Olympics were missing their most famous lens. But when Greenspan died in late 2010, he took that eye with him. His was a unique and novel perspective, honestly told without contrivance. Another tale involved David Moorcroft, the British 5,000-meter runner who was the world record holder entering Los Angeles but, competing injured, fought against being lapped in that event by race leaders. Said Moorcroft:

“One of Bud’s great skills, and he does it in victory and in defeat, is putting it into perspective without overdramatizing things.”

This approach seems quaint now. It’s becoming a lost art form, and in saying this I mean no slight against the excellent 30 for 30 sports film series created by Bill Simmons and that includes the superb “The Two Escobars,” released before the 2010 World Cup.

I write all this because there is a point here, amid my rambling. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how wide-ranging this blog is, and what it says about my scattershot approach to covering sports through books, art, literature, music, culture, history and other “off field” topics. Many think that there’s not much overlap between sports and the arts, but I’m trying to explore that area here.

Sometimes I think I’m trying too hard, or just not pulling it off. There’s still too much of the detached newspaper reporter in me, my prose too impersonal, not “bloggy” enough, not engaged or connected with some fascinating subject matter. My posts feel forced, as I strenuously try to capture the space of a subject area that is hopelessly, but gloriously obscure.

I’m still striving for authoritativeness in a way that doesn’t fit the blog form. Online authority is authentic and reciprocal, not forced as in the one-way vehicle of print, and at times I forget that. I need to do a better job of discovering an audience for this, as small as it may be, and reach it.

Bud Greenspan went about what he did without much of a concern for commercial imperatives, and whether his storytelling would go over with an American public starving for stories about “winners” in competitions we dominate. It took some time for his methods to find that audience — and he was dogged in finding financiers for his projects. Yet his endearing legacy is cemented.

I’m not making any comparisons between my aspirations and what Greenspan accomplished. I’m intrigued by his example because I’ve been thinking a lot about lately about the imperatives of doing meaningful work, and diving really deep down into it, and enjoying the satisfactions that come with it. It’s not about money or making a splash with peers or getting it in front of the right eyeballs for the sake of career advancement. As deep-work advocate Cal Newport blogged last week:

“At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: ‘I did that.’ “

This all sounds very self-absorbed, but it’s a craving I have — to see sports through a different, more measured lens than what abounds in popular culture. I want to take a step back — a few, actually — and find context and perspective that never gets a nod in the immediacy of the page view- and ratings- driven world of contemporary sports media.

What I post here may seem unfocused and all over the place, but in my sportswriting career I have loved the variety of what I was assigned to cover. There’s a glorious messiness to going deeper into places few venture to visit. The challenge is making some sense and order of it while fashioning a viable online niche.

So here’s a thumbnail summary of what appears on this blog on designated weekdays:

    • Monday: Sports Potpourri: A timely sports topic prominently in the news and focused on the business of sports or a sports subject at random.
    • Tuesday: Sports Media: Developments in sports media, occasionally stepping back in time to a different era in sports journalism.
    • Wednesday: Midweek Books: Noteworthy new sports books are highlighted, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.
    • Thursday: Sports History Files: An issue, personality or event in sports history is examined, as is the field through books, authors and scholars.
    • Friday: Weekend Arts: Delving into sports and culture, including, but not limited to, history, literature, books, visual art, films and music as they relate to the world of athletics and recreation.
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