By Phillips, Tom
Contemporary Review , Vol. 273, No. 1592
In the absence of economic disaster, political scandal and health scares, the British media spent the summer indulging a fixation with sport. The newspaper, radio and television coverage traditionally given to domestic cricket matches and the Test series or the Wimbledon tennis championships was supplemented - some would say, eclipsed - by the World Cup Finals in France. Athletics, cycling, Grand Prix motor racing, rugby and golf also made a significant showing and, for those blessed with insomnia and satellite television, sporting events from every corner of the globe, including American Major League baseball, Asian soccer, Brazilian beach volleyball and even European tractor-pulling, were available at the touch of a remote control button. Sport, as they say, was everywhere. Broadcast schedules were adjusted to accommodate coverage of everything from the NatWest Trophy to the Tour de France. Newsagents changed the layout of their shelves. Lifestyle and entertainment magazines lost their prominence to an extraordinary array of sports publications - from established specialist newspapers like Angling Times to glossy monthlies like Total Sport. Not surprisingly, very few - if any - of the nation's many sports journalists were able to avoid uttering a phrase which, by early June, had already become a cliche: What a great summer for sport!
That is not to say, of course, that it was a particularly glorious summer for British or, more specifically, English sport in terms of results achieved at international level. Tim Henman became the first English tennis-player to reach the semi-finals of the Wimbledon men's singles competition for decades but was unable to defeat the USA's Pete Sampras. England's football team survived the first round of the World Cup only to return home after an agonisingly protracted match against Argentina which they eventually lost in a penalty shoot-out. The English rugby team's tour of the southern hemisphere was described almost universally as 'a shambles'. In the middle of August came the welcome news that England beat the South Africans in the final Cornhill Test, the first English victory in Test cricket since 1986. Despite individual displays of grit, determination and skill and although several rising stars - most notably, the footballer Michael Owen and the golfing prodigy Justin Rose - promised much for the future, the summer did not produce a great series of English triumphs to complement the media's heightened excitement. In fact, it might be said that the only real victor was the media itself.
The relationship between the media and sport is long-standing. The media generates interest and excitement and, without it, sport would not be able to attract so much advertising and sponsorship. In return, sport supplies the media with drama, conflict and entertainment. Whilst there is nothing new about this, the amount of media coverage dedicated to sport has increased significantly in recent years - mainly thanks to the arrival of satellite television and a new generation of sports-oriented magazines - and the style of that coverage has changed beyond recognition. If, in the 1970s, it was often ponderous and amateurish, in the 1990s it has become witty, pithy and slick. Just as modern political journalism has turned general elections into the stuff of spectacle, so modern sports journalism has turned sport into show business. The media's 'great summer of sport' was a product of this trend.
There can be no doubt that the amount of media coverage dedicated to sport this summer was extraordinary. A relatively crude analysis of a single week's broadcasting (June 27 to July 3) reveals that on the five terrestrial television channels in Britain just under a fifth (163 hours) of programming was occupied by sport or sport-related broadcasting. In the same week, the satellite channels - four of which are dedicated to sport - broadcast at least 510 hours of sport while on BBC Radios 4 and 5 and the World Service approximately 90 hours of air-time were filled with commentary, sports news or discussion. …