Sports Help Countries Introduce Themselves to the World, Says Sports Press Association President

MerloBAKU – Since 1995, July 2 has been recognised as World Sports Journalists Day, designated as such at the initiative of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS). Founded on July 2, 1924, in Paris, the AIPS today comprises more than 9,500 journalists and 150 national journalists’ unions, including the Kazakhstan Sports Press Associationand 45 Kazakh sports journalists.

At the recent 77th AIPS Congress, a memorandum of cooperation between AIPS and Astana Presidential Professional Sports Club was signed, providing for AIPS assistance in covering the sports club, training Kazakh sports journalists and helping them reach international audiences.

AIPS President Giovanni Merlo discussed the role of sport as a unifying force in the world and the challenges facing the sport press today during a meeting in Baku earlier this year.

Almaty will host the Winter Universiade in 2017 and will compete to host the Winter Olympics in 2022. What are its chances?

It is important that Kazakhstan is now becoming widely known in the world, but not everyone has an idea of where your country is on the map. Currently, we all are witnessing how, through sport, any country can show what it is capable of. … I think that Kazakhstan can do much more [and] has a good chance to organise the Winter Games. But to give a more accurate assessment of opportunities in Kazakhstan, I would like to visit your country. I’m very curious to see your potential, as well as your mountains, slopes and sun.

Is the Universiade really a popular competition?

Of course, the Universiade is inferior in importance to the Olympics, the World Cup and the World Athletics Championships, and in popularity – for example in my country, Italy – it doesn’t beat Series A football. The Universiade is the first step on the way to a big win for future great champions. Many promising young athletes are using these games as a kind of stage of preparation for the World Championships. The Universiade is also quite a massive sports event, where athletes come from all over the world. It is a mixture of sport traditions and human cultures and it is a very powerful symbiosis. Therefore, the significance of the Universiade is still great.

Kazakhstan still has only five accreditations for journalists to the Olympics, but 155 athletes from Kazakhstan participated in the London Olympics and 55 athletes in Sochi. Do you think this quota needs to be increased?

I am a member of the Commission on Olympic quotas and will protect the rights of all journalists. The criteria depend on many things: on results, on the number of newspapers. The number of quotas is not only a technical question. Usually, a thorough discussion is held and then a decision is made on the last quota. There are quite different situations, but I think that sport in Kazakhstan is developing successfully, and accordingly, the number of Kazakh journalists covering today’s largest competitions must grow.

There is much debate about the impact of new technologies on sports journalism. What is your opinion?

Now, many people are talking about the beginning of a new era – an era of blogs and Facebook and Twitter. Once, I listened to the chief editor of the Reuters agency, David Schlesinger, explain the notion of ‘a civil journalist.’ “Now the boundaries between a text and an image, professional reporter and citizen journalist, begin to blur. The old way of thinking does not work. We must live with this,” he said.

Schlesinger predicted that the first reports from the stadium at the next Olympics would not come from Reuters, the Associated Press or Agence France-Presse, but from ordinary bloggers, who would tell us about the results using mobile phones. “In fact, old media will not control the dissemination of news in the future,” he added. Schlesinger also said, “[The new era] means to work with mobile phones and digital cameras, to work with the open media, and not against it.”

In my opinion, sports journalists should take this statement seriously. We need to accept new technologies and not be afraid of them. We must work together with the leadership of the federations in the accreditation issues.

But one thing should be clear: new technologies should not serve as an excuse for neglecting the duty to defend the values of not only sport, but also our society. We must continue to fight for the freedom to express our thoughts, and not only through the Internet. This will help prevent any future use of the Internet as an instrument of power to stop real freedom of speech.

Politics still occasionally affects sport – just look at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. But as they say, all press is good press.

It’s a funny thing, but at the time, it was the best thing the International Olympic Committee [IOC] could have come up with to promote the Olympic Games. Before the Moscow Olympics in 1980, interest in the games in general had fallen away. But Jimmy Carter, then the U.S. president, by the decision to boycott, helped sport instead of killing it. Then, thanks to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, the big controversy was launched: whether or not to participate in those Olympics. People stood for compliance with the Olympic Charter, preserving the Olympic spirit. … The publication where I worked, La Gazzetta dello Sport, saw sales increase in the summer of 1980, because people wanted to get more information.

It was the same four years later in Los Angeles, where Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel won the 400 metre hurdles for the first time. If the Soviet athletes had participated in the Olympic Games in the United States, she would never have reached the final. Moutawakel’s gold medal made people respect her in her country and made a sort of revolution in their minds. So these boycotts were a blessing for someone.

There was also quite a lot of unsportsmanlike sentiment before the Sochi Olympics.

The Winter Olympics, kissed by the sub-tropical climate and inspired by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, were, to be honest, well organised and successful. It was certainly the most visible sports event in the world, due to the uproar before the start of the games on the problem of gays and security. Even those who had never been interested in winter sports gave at least a peek at the opening and closing ceremonies and the odd race.

As expected, nothing tragic happened, but if there had been an attack, it would have endangered the future of sport, because every event, both large and small, would have become open to blackmail. … The counter measures of the anti-terrorism forces of the many countries that cooperated were perfect.

Thomas Bach, who made his debut as IOC President in Sochi, is satisfied because he experienced a great Winter Games – but at the same time, he’s also now a little worried, because the organisational level was so high that it won’t be easy to maintain the same standard in future. There are few countries that can guarantee the same investment, not only for the infrastructure but also for the staff. In the coming years, Europe will find it difficult to beat the Asian competition of Kazakhstan and China, which have resources and suitable sites.

What are the new challenges for young sports journalists?

There are a lot of them. And to overcome them, we representatives of the older generation need to share our experience. I say straight off that I am on the part of the young generation. I prefer to look to the future, because the young generation is amazing. We must allow them to meet each other, because they will build a better future.

Is free media a myth or reality? 

It can be a reality if we believe in it. The problem is when you are independent, your price is higher. If you are corrupt, your price will go down. [I]t is a market problem. … I was always independent. … [B]ut independence doesn’t mean we write what we want. Independence means we write in a proper way, criticise when necessary, give an opinion when necessary and also send new messages.

Is there a connection between sport and money? What comes first, sport or money?

When you say sport, there is always big money. Money is not the problem. There is another problem: corruption, manipulation of results – this is the big problem. Money is never a problem, because sport is the biggest industry in the world. It creates many jobs. Don’t look only at the players, who receive millions; look how many people can have a decent life in the world thanks to sport. We have to think like this: money is never the problem; the problem is that we have to fight against corruption.

What do you need to become a sport journalist today?

The most important is culture. If you have culture and knowledge, you can be a very good journalist. Also, you must be a very curious person who wants to find a solution, information, because if you are lazy, it’s better that you don’t do journalism.

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