Unsportsmanlike conduct

  • 2002-08-15
  • Geoffrey Vasilauskas
When does sports reporting become journalism? Sport has become increasingly popular and accepted as real news in recent years, moving out of the horoscope and comics ghetto in daily papers. Otherwise intelligent professionals now talk about sports journalism along with investigative journalism as a real branch of journalistic endeavor.

Sports reporting isn't complicated - there are always raw scores ready to be reported and plenty of players ready to share semi-articulate views on their sport. Superficially, at least, there are empirical facts to report. And sometimes sport spills over into the regular news.

For more than two weeks now, Lithuanian media have been covering the wife of Lithuanian cyclist Raimondas Rumsas, Edita, detained in France for attempting to transport doping drugs across the French border.

It's an easy story to report, and with keen public interest focused on Rumsas, who placed third in the Tour de France, it is sure to interest Lithuanian readers at several levels.

But the constant coverage of the couple's misfortunes has angered average Lithuanians, and the line between jouranlism and blindly supporting the home team has been blurred in the media's treatment of the story.

Even coverage in the international media has focused on Lithuanians crying foul at what they perceive to be unfair treatmetn of Edita Rumsiene and French authorities' alleged presumption of guilt when they caught her trying to cross the border carrying some 40 medicinal preparations (including cortisone and testosterone).

The largest Lithuanian daily, Lietuvos Rytas, has featured editorials alleging outrageous behavior by the French and the rest of the world toward this small Baltic country.

Listen to this: "It's the same as saying the representative of such a petty race, a Lithuanian, can prevail only if he's pumped full of dope, while Aryans and supermen such as Americans, French and Germans have not even heard of doping."

Or: "Lithuania has been reminded that her place is exclusively next to the door of the European Union. Europeans can throw us their used clothes, expired drugs or buses, but they still can't get used to the idea that in some areas we can surpass them."

The facts, of course, speak for themselves. Europeans and everyone else have hailed Lithuania's victories on the basketball court and the Olympics.

And it's hard to assert French sour grapes - why would they be sour at Rumsas' success anyway? – when his wife is caught carrying such a stash of doping materials.

The whole incident, sadly, seems to reflect on poor Lithuanian, not French, sportsmanship.

The local newspapers and editorial writers have conveniently forgotten what some Internet users following the Rumsiene drama have brought up recently in chat rooms - that Lithuanian authorities did almost excactly the same thing to Latvian cyclist Juris Silovs not long ago.

Silovs was presumed guilty and sent to a Lithuanian prison for forgetting or neglecting to declare some of his cash winnings as he crossed the Lithuanian border.

Sport is not simply sport – and never has been. When Hitler was starting out, the Nazi newspapers began running more and more sport to increase circulation and capture the young reader, who might then read some of the vitriolic anti-Semitism on offer elsewhere in the paper.

In Franco's Spain, the only outlet for the national ambitions of the Catalans and Basques was on the football pitch. European football hooligans are nothing more than ultra-nationalists out for blood.

Fascist and communist dictatorships have always used sport to relieve the inevitable pressure that builds up when the human spirit is confined to the hothouse of tyranny.

Those memories of games past couldn't be closer to the surface this week as the international media remember the Munich Olympic tragedy, when the Palestinian organization Black September took hostage young Israeli athletes, and German troops stormed and killed hostages and kidnappers alike.

The Munich Games were supposed to be the showcase for the new Germany, to atone for the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, which Hitler used as a photo-op to show off the achievements of the Third Reich and the superiority of the Aryan athlete to the world.

If sport is a legitimate form of journalism, it has to strive for objectivity. Otherwise, it may create a temporary surge in circulation but will never serve the greater common interest, including that of the free press.