|Philip Hersh. Foto: globetrottingbyphiliphersh.com|
Philip Hersh is one of the most distinguished olympic sports journalists worlwide. Since 1980 he has covered 17 Olympic Games and other big events on 35 countries and five continents including 10 outdoor World Track and Field championships, 17 World Figure Skating Championships, seven soccer World Cups (four men, three women) and three Wimbledons.
A few months ago he said goodbye to The Chicago Tribune after more than 31 years and recently created a new web site, called www.globetrottingbyphiliphersh.com, where he will pursue and tell about the same multi-sport stories as he always used to.
Less than six months before the start of Rio-2016, we contacted Hersh to know a bit more about his career at The Tribune and his point of view on changes in sports journalism and about what may happen in next Olympics after so many economic problems in Brazil and recent scandals in different big sport federations.
- You said to goodbye to the Chicago Tribune after more than three decades covering sports events all over the world. When did you feel it was about time to turn the page and start a new chapter of your life?
- The state of the industry is such that I knew the Tribune, like many newspapers, would focus its resources on stories closer to home. While I have always done some of those stories, I did not want that to be my primary area of work.
- I suppose it was a difficult decision.
- It was made easier by my age (69) and the Tribune’s severance offer. But it still was something I agonized over until the final moment when I could have changed my mind.
- In what ways covering big events changed?
- The power of television and that of the web changed everything. Athletes now have the option to go directly to their fans (Facebook, Twitter, The Players Tribune) without the so-called traditional media. Teams and leagues have their own web sites, which they can use to control the story or spin it the way they want. Nearly ever game, college or pro, is available via TV or streaming, so the idea of having a reporter to write about the facts of a game became almost obsolete. All of this affects coverage of big events.
- Among all the events you covered there are 17 Olympics Games, but when you began your newspaper did not pay enough attention to Olympics. Did you need to lead the way on this particular issue?
- The newspaper had paid plenty of attention during the Olympics but not in the years between - which, until 1994, was a four-year gap. Having six Olympics in North America from 1976 through 2002 helped me make the case that someone on the staff should be following the Olympics full time – not just the sports competition but the finances, doping, politics, etc.
- Even nowadays most of sports media do not consider Olympics as a big issue apart from the fortnight of competition every four years. But Olympics, as you say, is also bureaucracy and politics.
- From about 1956 until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Olympics became an “us-vs-.them” story, putting the USSR and its satellite countries against the USA. The Soviets and East Germans, in particular, wanted sports success to validate the ideas behind Communism. What that created in the U.S. was interest in who won the most medals in an (oversimplified) good vs. evil sense. Over the last 25 years, that has of course changed and, in a country like the USA with not only professional sports but hugely followed university sports, it has diminished interest in the Olympics.
- You said once that during all that time you worked for The Tribune you had 'the best job in newspaper journalism'. What does being a Olympic sports specialist mean and how the Olympic spirit may help you become a better journalist?
- I was a specialist in 19th Century French literature in college. I always wanted to travel to understand the world better. A European colleague once told me, “You are the most European of any Americans I know.” I took that as a great compliment. The piece of the Olympic values that urges us to find common ground rather than divisive borders is the most meaningful to me.
'Olympic values that urge us to find common ground rather than divisive borders is the most meaningful to me'
'The idea of having a reporter to write about the facts of a game became almost obsolete'
- If you had to choose three or four magic moments in the Olympics you lived, which ones would you pick according to your experiences?
- The US hockey team’s win over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics.
- Great Britain’s Derek Redmond hobbling across the finish line of the 400 meters at Barcelona. One of the best stories I have written.
- Meeting Sudanese refugee Guor Marial after writing the story that got him into the 2012 London Olympics.
- With the enormous hopes of her homeland on her shoulders, South Korea’s Yuna Kim skating flawlessly to win the 2010 figure skating gold, one of the greatest sporting performances under pressure I ever have seen.
- What can we expect from your new web site www.globetrottingbyphiliphersh.com? What sort of stories do you feel like pursuing and counting from now on?
- I hope to keep telling the same stories I always have. In the fall and winter, there will be a lot of figure skating, because I have covered the sport closely for 35 years, and I have many readers who look to me for opinions about it..
- We are in the countdown to Rio. How corruption and doping affairs in big sport federations and budget cuts to finish the construction of some venues will affect the development of the Games?
- Rio is going from crisis to crisis, with the most recent (Zika virus) the most dangerous to the success of the Games. The water quality issues could become a big story if athletes get sick. The media coverage related to these will intensify, of course, during the Games, and it is likely Rio will not look very good.
The IAAF doping scandal casts a much bigger shadow than the FIFA scandal over the 2016 Olympics, because it calls into question the credibility of results. But I must say that the IAAF scandal is of little interest in the United States, where track & field (athletics) has become a sport with no following in the general public.
Interview in Spanish