Friday, June 4, 2004
Sports Illustrated's Ed
Swift examines trends in sports
Besides writing for Sports Illustrated for over 20 years, Swift's other accomplishments include co-writing the books Eleven Seconds and My Sergei. The first book was written with Travis Roy, the hockey player who was paralyzed by an injury after playing on the ice only 11 seconds in his first game as a freshman at Boston University. The best-selling My Sergei, was written with Ekaterina Gordeeva, and tells how she and her husband grew up in Russia and became Olympic gold-medal-winning pairs-skaters. It also describes how Ekaterina coped when Sergei died unexpectedly at age 26. It was Swift's in-depth coverage of the 1980 underdog U.S. Olympic ice hockey team that was the basis of the recent movie, Miracle.
Swift shared his views informally, answering questions posed by CCI board member Bret Bero and the audience.
What are you working on now? For the 50th anniversary of Sports Illustrated, he has been writing about fly-fishing in Idaho, rodeos in Wyoming, motocross racing in Tennessee, snowboarding in Vermont, and skiing in New Hampshire. Swift likes learning new things and particularly enjoyed discovering that entire families participate in motocross competition. He's also working on a piece on how golf courses are over-built in this country. The main focus of all the writing is "the people." Swift said that he couldn't have kept up his enthusiasm over the years if he had focused solely on one sport.
Where are sports going in this country? America's interest in sports is "far broader" than what is normally covered by ESPN and Sports Illustrated. Because Americans are staying active and healthy longer, interest in sports will continue to grow, especially for personal participatory sports like kayaking.
He also noted that very few Olympic sports are shown in ABC's TV coverage. The U.S. sends the largest contingent of athletes to the Olympics, yet ABC "only covers about four sports, while other countries televise everything." Swift felt that sports enthusiasts would enjoy watching all the Olympic-level competition, even those in unfamiliar sports.
What made the 1980 hockey team story so special? Swift thought there were several factors that made the story compelling. To begin with, the cold- war tensions between the U.S. and Russia increased interest in sports competition between the two countries. The young, less-experienced U.S. team was the underdog. And the U.S. team coach had his story as well, having barely missed playing on the U.S. Olympic hockey team two decades earlier.
"I don't think there is a formula, and I don't think you can predict it," Swift said. "That makes reporting exciting, because you never know when the special moments will happen."
One thing that Swift dislikes is the way the TV coverage now tries to tell everything about each athlete — telling all their personal problems; trying to make every athlete a "big story."
How has the character of the athletes changed over the years? How has the public relationship to those athletes changed? Swift said that in the amateur sports, "they're still inspiring people," playing for the love of the sport. But things have changed in the "big ball" sports (e.g. football, basketball, baseball) where players earn the high salaries. When he started, the "big-ball players had to join the real world" when their career was over, and would have to get jobs to support themselves. Now many make so much money that they can play five to ten years, and not have to work again. It's gotten to be a monetary thing. This is true for some fans as well, who have gotten very aggressive. Swift said, "Now if a fan gets a valuable autograph, they'll turn around and sell it on e-Bay."
What about kids in sports? What about "trash talking" when kids imitate the celebrity athletes? Swift answered, "The kids at the youth level, I still believe, are a reflection of who coaches them, and their parents. Trash talking does not have to be part of the game. They see it in pro sports, but it does not have to be part of amateur sports.
"The best thing about youth sports is what it teaches you about values, and what it teaches you about how to win and how to lose." This past year Swift coached his son's Concord-Carlisle Peewee II hockey team.
One of the trends over the years is the participation of women. What are the demographics? "Title 9 has made a huge difference in the demographics at college," Swift noted, but among the Sports Illustrated readership, he estimated the ratio of men to women was still 10 or 20 to 1. "Research has shown that girls like to play sports, and are good at sports, but they don't particularly like to read about sports, or watch sports on TV. If girls do watch sports, they don't care if it's live or on tape."
What's the hardest story you've written? The two books, which were both about young kids whose lives had been turned upside down by tragedies.
What's the most interesting story that you didn't get to work on, but would have liked to? "I wanted to go to New Zealand to cover the America's Cup, because I'd never been to New Zealand," Swift answered. He almost had the chance, and had made his reservations, but then America was eliminated early in the competition, and his trip was canceled.
What would you like to cover next? At first Swift could not come up with an answer, because, "What is interesting to me is what I don't know about." Then he added, "But I love fishing. Yeah, I'd like to fish and get paid to write about it."
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito