Friday, August 17, 2007

After Toro

It gave us the world according to Toronto’s penis. It unforgivably Photoshopped Steve Nash’s acne scars. But each year Toro also gave us The Sports Issue. Now that it’s gassed, where to find magazine writers getting paid by the word to think hard and write smart about the cultures of sport?

Newspapers have stars and I admire them—Iain MacIntyre on hockey at the Vancouver Sun for his courage to take a metaphor and bend it like …um…okay, just bend it; Stephen Brunt on boxing at the Globe for knowledge that is wide and deep. But I want glossy paper, many words and a great photo. I want to make a fat mug of milky tea, wedge the good cushion at the small of my back, welcome the two dogs to lie at my feet, and know I’ve got a ways to go before I’m done reading. And I want to feel as much on that couch as I do watching the best minutes of sports (at midnight, Frank Dancevic’s first set versus Rafi’s left bicep).

See Adam Gopnick’s “Last of the Metrozoids” (originally in the New Yorker and collected in Through the Children’s Gate). Try not blubbering at the end. It’s a stunning pastiche of art history, pedagogy, and football that depicts the final year of art historian, Kirk Varnedoe. One minute he’s explaining Stella and Cezanne to SRO crowds in Washington, and the next he’s teaching the ol’ flea flicker to eight-year-old boys on a small field in New York after yet another round of chemotherapy.

Or Bruce Grierson’s profile of squash antihero, Jonathan Power—“Court Jester”—originally in Saturday Night and collected in Brunt’s The Way it Looks from Here.

John McPhee’s in his seventies now and gets to write about anything he wants—plate tectonics and contemporary rail transport, for example. His father was physician to U.S. Olympic teams for more than a decade and for forty years treated college athletes. Some of McPhee’s most wonderful writing is about athletes. The books A Sense of Where You Are—about Bill Bradley as a college basketball player—and Levels of the Game—a deconstruction of one of Arthur Ashe’s early matches—are classics. Read Dave Bidini’s The Best Game You Can Name and certain chapters of Brunt’s Searching for Bobby Orr, and witness the McPhee model celebrated and emulated to perfection.

In the August 6 issue of the New Yorker, McPhee writes about this year’s U.S. Open golf tourney in Oakmont, Pennsylvania and all the great McPhee moves are there. The present-tense description of icons with a weird verb and a suggestive comparison—“Woods stands motionless, feet together, his gaze levelled on the fairway, his posture as perpendicular as military attention.” The bit of personal history expressed in witty restrospect—“…aged twenty-four, clearly, if not for the first time, I envisioned golf as a psychological Sing Sing in which I was an inmate.” And the lovely bits of hand-polished research—“Oakmont greens are not covered with bent grass, as greens are on most Eastern courses. Oakmont uses a Poa annua of its own creation which bears few seeds and therefore results in what golfers describe as a ‘less pebbly’ surface.”

A couple of years ago, I griped to writer Arley McNeney about how hard it is to make sports writing as interesting and artful as a good short story or a perfect pop song. Arley was working on her first novel, Post, and still soured by only a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics playing for Canada’s wheelchair basketball squad. “Somebody wins, somebody loses. That’s sports,” she simplified. “How interesting can it be?” Her novel, of course, is about much more than that: the body and its betrayals; the heart’s great short stories and stupid pop songs; about New Westminster, spirituality, determination; the brain’s connection to a body with a mind of its own.

These elements—and the wisdom, patience and cash to explore them at some length—also make for great sports writing in magazines.

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