A champion, in deed and word
The cliché is that athletic failure at an early age is a primary inspiration to become a sportswriter. Which didn’t apply to Kenny Moore, who died last month at 78. Neither did the generalization that elite physical performance gifts do not translate into producing compelling narration of such.
Moore was a world-class runner and an eloquent correspondent for Sports Illustrated. He “was the rare athlete,” Nicholas Dawidoff noted in his 2012 essay, “The Power and the Glory of Sportswriting,” “who wrote as well as he ran.” So those among us drawn to the drama of sports as well as the appreciation of good writing — whatever our abilities in either sphere — have lost something with Moore’s passing.
He was a national cross-country champion and two-time Olympic marathoner who brought to his sports journalism career a degree in philosophy and master’s in creative writing, both of which showed in his work.
He in no way fit the lame assumption, laid out in an Atlantic column years ago, that “kids who loved sports but were too small to play football or too fragile to carry water turned to sportswriting as a natural alternative.” Nor did he traffic, as a lyric wordsmith, in trite themes or self-centered vanity.
In his prolific writing, mostly but not entirely about distinguished runners, Moore called himself an “observer….to avoid a relentless ‘I’ being interposed between subject and reader, to lull the latter into an unwarranted sense of objectivity.
“It is a device,” he acknowledged, “that can become tedious, especially when the watching euphemism is known to be always me, but I’m going to leave it in, because in the case of this observer, it is perfectly apt. I am conscious of myself as an outsider, shy, peculiarly suited to peering for a while into lives and worlds, then withdrawing to muse over what seems interesting.”
In this age of snarky, look-at-me Twitter declarations and “hot takes,” shoving personal opinions in the faces of readers and listeners, Moore’s “observer” approach is a reminder that good sportswriting is, essentially, storytelling. And therefore not about the storyteller, whatever his or her personal experience in the game.
Even in his fascinating long-form tale of the 1972 Olympic marathon, “The Long Blue Line” — unavoidably a first-person account because Moore was the fourth-place finisher in that race — his observations are what carried the piece. Weaved throughout his account of the 26-mile competition were flashbacks and asides, personal details of fellow Olympians, descriptions and reactions to the Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli compound during the Games, colleagues’ thoughts on politics, race, nationalism, the very meaning of the Olympics.
In that marathon report, which read like a prize-winning short story, Moore presented characters fit for a novel. Among them was teammate Doug Brown, caught pilfering cherries during a pre-Olympic training run in Oslo (Brown apologized to the cheery-tree owner) and Moore concluded that the incessantly loquacious Brown “must have been a hyperkinetic child, for he is now a hyperkinetic postadolescent.”
Moore described how defending Olympic champ Mamo Wolde, then 40 years old, “runs, soundless of foot and breath, with his head tipped slightly forward…knock-kneed and pointing his toes slightly out.” While Derek Clayton, then the world’s fastest marathoner, was “full of movement, his arms clawing high across his chest, his head bobbing…his tongue rolled in and out of his mouth.”
During those tumultuous Games, Moore gave voice to the thoughts of wrestlers, boxers, shot-putters. He reflected on how the attack on the Israelis “violated the sanctuary of the Games.”
“For two weeks every four years we direct our kind of fanaticism into the essentially absurd activities of running and swimming and being beautiful on a balance beam,” he wrote. “Yet even in the rage of competition we keep from hurting each other, and thereby demonstrate the meaning of civilization.” Only to have that illusion “shattered.”
It was Moore’s celebrated Sports Illustrated colleague, Frank Deford, who once said that “when people hear you’re a sportswriter, they assume you’re more interested in the first half of that word than the second.” Moore was at least as involved in the second as the first, exploding another cliché.
I spoke with him a couple of times, mostly to get his early recollections of Frank Shorter, Moore’s close friend whose ’72 Olympic marathon victory was so central to powering the American running boom. Moore had been a major player in that revolution as well; he ran collegiately at Oregon for coach Bob Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike. But more than that, as a middling leisure runner and sportswriter, I tried to learn something from Moore’s perceptive, stylist writing. A hero, of sorts.