The RBR Interview: Duncan MacKay, by Larry Eder


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Duncan Mackay is a man of some complexity. A journalist, a publisher, a keen observer of the sport of athletics, where he tells all, celebrating the stars, chastizing the cheats, but, a sport for which he has much affection.

From athletics, Duncan has become one of most well read observers of the Olympic sport world, a rarefied world where realpolitik, or perhaps, the art of the deal, is an everyday occurrence, perhaps an involuntary response, like breathing. Duncan admits some fascination with the world of Olympic sport, and he communicates that fascination in his daily columns on, the new site of his Olympic and sport observations.

Duncan recently moved his Olympic coverage to on September 1, 2009. Just before he left for Copenhagen on September 30, 2009, Duncan sent us this very candid interview. As is my modus operandi, I sent Duncan the questions, and his answers, with the caveat of some American english changes (sorry, Duncan), this is all Duncan...a fascinating interview just before we hear who wins the 2016 bid. Duncan has gone on the record saying Chicago....

RBR, # 1: Tell us how you got started as an athletics journalist?

Duncan Mackay: I started out on the Slough & Windsor Observer as a trainee reporter doing all the things young trainee reporters do – covering the local fete, court duty, ringing up the local vicar. At the weekends I used to cover whatever sports event needed doing. Windsor, Slough & Eton Athletics Club at the time had a crop of promising youngsters emerging, including 400m runner Mark Richardson, so I started doing more and more athletics. In 1989 I won Local Sports Journalist of the Year in the UK Press awards. That led to Randall Northam at Athletics Today magazine contacting me and asking me to work for them. That was a fantastic opportunity and I traveled the world covering major meetings and events, occasionally freelancing for national newspapers. Unfortunately Athletics Today closed in 1993 and I become, very briefly, editor of Rugby World magazine. When I left there I freelanced for a while before joining The Observer in 1995. In 1996 I was appointed athletics correspondent of The Guardian, the Observer’s sister newspaper, and combined the two roles until I left in 2007.

RBR, #2: What is the responsibility of an athletics journalist?

Duncan Mackay: I have occasionally fallen out with people about this. It is not the responsibility of an athletics journalist to promote the sport. It is their responsibility to report on what is happening in the sport – but fairly and honestly. Unfortunately in recent years this has meant writing an awful lot about drugs and the sport’s problems. But I think it is because the sport has been so closely scrutinized by journalists like me that it has been forced to face up to its problems. It’s a bit like being an alcoholic – things can only really get better when you stop lying to yourself. If you look at cycling, for example, for too many years too many journalists covering it were too close to the riders and the teams and were afraid to cover what was going on. Then when the lid was blown it was a massive explosion. I am convinced if cycling had not been so full of fans with laptops the issue would have been faced a lot earlier.

RBR, #3: is your new website, tell us about the site and what you hope to accomplish?

Duncan Mackay: It’s not actually a new website but is a new URL. I set up in August 2005, shortly after London were awarded the 2012 Games. I started it with my wife Lorraine and it originally started out as a subscription concentrating on London 2012. But as the site has evolved we have begun to take a closer interest in other aspects of the Olympic and Paralympic Movement and the several other multi-sport event competitions that take place across the world, like the Commonwealth Games and the Pan Am Games. Unfortunately Lorraine died in June 2007 of cancer, which coincided with me leaving the Guardian after 11 years. We had to change the URL because was hijacked and we are now taking legal action against the company concerned. We have now relaunched at which is bigger, brighter and better. We are now totally free, funding the site through advertising, and anyone can sign up to our free subscription service which offers the most comprehensive review of the Olympic and Paralympic Movement and everything associated with it, including athletics which is covered in-depth. We now have nearly 13,000 subscribers, including all the main decision-makers in world sport and the leading opinion-formers. The site now gets a visitor every second. It is recognized around the world as the leading source of independent news for the Olympics.

RBR, #4: You are a keen observer of the 2012 London Games, why?

Duncan Mackay: Being based in London offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover an Olympic Games in my home city. I remember how jealous I was of journalists working for the Australian newspapers in the build-up to Sydney 2000 and I never believed I would get the chance. London staging the 2012 Olympics is already changing the face of British sport. The amount of money being pumped into sport helped Team GB finish fourth in the medals table in Beijing last year and we are seeing unfashionable sports like basketball (I know, I know, but it’s never really caught on here) and handball getting unprecedented amounts of coverage already, which I think is really exciting. It has also forced athletics in Britain to address some of the challenges it is facing. London 2012 has the potential to turn people like Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu into mega-stars that will be etched into the history of British sport forever.

RBR, #5: The Caster Semenya affair gets more sordid by the day, any thoughts on that issue?

Duncan Mackay: I think it’s incredibly sad that a teenager has had her life ruined like this. She has done nothing wrong but has been let down by people around her, particularly Athletics South Africa who I think have come across as the real bad guys in this affair. They sent her to Berlin knowing that there were doubts over her gender and what might happen yet were so desperate for success that they were prepared to take that risk. I know the IAAF have also been criticized but it is hard to know what they could have done. The rules did not allow them to demand her withdrawal and we still do not know that she was ineligible. It was unfortunate that the IAAF commented on the affair during the Championships but, as anyone who has ever worked in a press room at a major event knows, once the hare is out and running it is very hard to stop. It seems to me that the IAAF would have been condemned whatever they did. By speaking publicly about it they laid themselves open to accusations of insensitivity. If they had refused they would have been accused of not being transparent. But the only person I truly feel sorry for is Caster Semenya.

RBR, #6: covers a variety of sports topics, from the business of sports, to the politics of sports, to the athletes at the top, are those similar to your personal interests in sport?

Duncan Mackay: I think one of the tremendous things about covering a sport like athletics is that it opens up opportunities to work in other areas. Because the Olympics is so closely associated with athletics that saw me being given the IOC beat. I started covering it closely just as the Salt Lake City bribery scandal was beginning to brew and that became one of the biggest scandals ever. I found it fascinating and I still do. For someone who is a politics graduate, like me, and who has a real interest in sport there is nothing better.

RBR, #7: What has been the most under rated sports story in the past decade?

Duncan Mackay: I always thought that outside athletics, the achievements of Haile Gebrselassie were never given the credit they fully deserved. This was a runner who dominated his sport and had a tremendous story to tell as well but I think he was dismissed as just being another faceless wonder off the Ethiopian production line. Of course, anyone who has met him and spent time in his company, realizes he is one of the most charismatic sportsmen or women in the world. I sometime think that we, as journalists, let him down a bit in not projecting this more. For me, his achievements far outstrip those of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. He would definitely be in my top three sports figures in history.

RBR, #8: How is the web changing our viewing and perception of sports in general and athletics in particular?

Duncan Mackay: The amount of information that is now available to the general public is amazing. I remember when I first became interested in the sport the bible (in Britain, anyway) was Athletics Weekly. Seb Coe or Steve Ovett could break a world record and sometimes you would have to wait up to six weeks to read a full report and see a picture of the event. Now if Usain Bolt breaks a record I can watch a rerun of the race on YouTube and read a full report with quotes and reaction within a few weeks. Thanks to people like Alfonz Juck I can read about people I have not heard of doing fabulous things in meetings and races in places I am not sure I even knew existed within a few hours of them doing it. People demand that immediateness now and they usually want it for nothing, which is a challenge to people like me who are trying to earn a living from the web.

RBR, #9: What does athletics have to do to gain more of the sports marketing dollars on a global level?

Duncan Mackay: Pray that Usain Bolt remains fit and at the top for 10 years! It is amazing how one man can change the perception of the sport. I was shopping in my local Mall today and there were huge posters on various shops with Bolt’s image on them advertising things like Puma and the Guinness Book of Records. He is like a Federer, Woods or a Jordan who only come along once in a generation, maybe even two or three generations. I remember when he competed in that street race in Manchester in May. It was pouring down with rain but there was no space to be had on the streets because everyone just wanted to catch a glimpse of him. It was amazing. I think we also need a great middle-distance rivalry to match the Coe-Ovett days. At the risk of being accused racist, I think it would help tremendously if these athletes were from Europe or North America. The Kenyans are fabulous but they do tend to be a bit faceless and rarely have long shelf lives. The Africans that stick around, like Bayi, Aouita and El Guerrouj, are different because the public really get to know them and can begin to emphasize a bit more with them. It’s a bit hard to care about an athlete if you know that they are likely to disappear off the radar scene after only a couple of seasons. Also it would help if the shoe companies stopped dressing everyone in the same kit. I think it looks silly – athletics is an individual sport so let the athletes show their own personality rather than turn them into corporate clothes horses. Surely a company like Nike and adidas can come up with more than one colour-way for all the athletes it sponsors, can’t they?

RBR, #10: Do you have a favorite story? A favorite interview or athlete?

Duncan Mackay: Going back to Gebrselassie, I remember the night of the 10,000m final at the Sydney Olympics. If you recall, that was the evening that Cathy Freeman ran her 400m final so it was a bit chaotic. Anyway, Britain’s Katharine Merry won a bronze medal and, for some reason, was delayed getting to the press conference so it was due to start at the same time as the 10,000m. All the British press corp trooped off to see Katharine but I decided to watch the 10,000m on the basis that it was out of edition time back in London and I could always catch up with what Katharine said later. Anyway, as I am sure you remember, that 10,000m turned out to be an absolute classic with Gebrselassie beating Paul Tergat by a narrower margin that Maurice Greene had earlier won the 100m in. It is still the most exciting race I have ever seen which I will remember until the day I die. With all due respect to Katharine, I’m not sure if I would have remembered what she said as long! When Tom Knight, then working for the Daily Telegraph, came back he asked casually: “Have I missed anything?” I said: “Just the greatest race in history.”

RBR, #11: Where do you see 2016 right now?

Duncan Mackay: A few weeks ago I definitely thought Rio were going to win it because the momentum had swung behind them. But, unfortunately for them, I think they have peaked too early and that has allowed Chicago to address some of the issues that have overshadowed its bid, things like the disputes between the IOC and the USOC and the financial guarantees. Just a few days before the vote I would say it is still too close to call but I am going to stick my neck out and say I think it will be Chicago. The difference between this race and 2005 was that London really began to pick up momentum only in the last couple of weeks and Paris did not have enough time to react.

RBR, #12: Your wording about Michael Jordan and President Obama not attending Copenhagen was quite precise. Am I stretching the interpretation that you believe the Chicago 2016 bid is, to put it gently,
challenged, without the President's actual visit?

Duncan Mackay: I think this follows on from my point above. A few weeks ago I think the White House were thinking that they weren’t going to let Obama travel to Copenhagen to be associated with a losing bid but as the balance of power has begun to switch back to Chicago they can definitely see the PR value in him traveling there. I think if he goes then Chicago will definitely win the bid. If they do, then it will be no thanks to the USOC.

Special thanks to Duncan Mackay. His responses were insightful...

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