They are partying in New York and Moscow. From Sixth Avenue, Sports Illustrated the magazine that reaches almost one in five US men publishes its 50th anniversary issue next week. In Moscow, a daily sports newspaper has been celebrating an even more venerable birthday: it first appeared in July 1924. With the magnificent disregard of sports newspapers for the real world, it is still called Sovietski Sport.

The world's sports press a phenomenon on which hundreds of millions of us waste so much time and morning coffee gets surprisingly little scrutiny. Noam Chomsky, the US political thinker, says any “serious media critique” should look at sport and soap operas. He explains: “These are the types of things which occupy most of the media, after all most of it isn't shaping the news about El Salvador for politically articulate people, it's diverting the general population from things that really matter. So this is one respect in which the work that Ed Herman and I have done on the media is really defective.” Luckily Chomsky is too modest. Among the few thinkers who have bothered to notice the sports media are he, Umberto Eco and Jorge Lu”s Borges.

Today dozens of countries have daily sports newspapers. In Spain, Marca is the country's best-selling paper of any kind. In South Korea, five sports dailies double as occasional publishers of smut. Greece has seven sports dailies, probably the world record per capita. In English- speaking countries, we get our sports news mostly from general newspapers, which cover the subject thoroughly to leave no room for specialist sports papers.

Everywhere, though, sports pages of some kind march on, barely hindered by the rise of sports-geek websites or the decline in newspaper reading or the fact that the papers can't show any actual sport. In fact, says Eco, talk about sport has become practically independent of sport itself. Sport today, he writes, consists of “discussion of the sports press”, which is “a discourse on a discourse about watching others' sport as a discourse”.

Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares parodied this supremacy of the sports media in their 1967 short story “Esse est percipi”, which reveals that no football matches have actually been played in Buenos Aires since 1937. “Nowadays everything is staged on the television and radio,” explains one character, “performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys before the TV cameras.”

This energy devoted to sport is taken away from serious issues, say Eco and Chomsky. They note that sports fans analyse sport in much the same way that a select few discuss politics. Eco writes: “Instead of judging the job done by the minister of finance (for which you have to know about economics, among other things), you discuss the job done by the coach.”

Whereas Eco seems to believe that people argue about sport out of intellectual laziness, Chomsky says they have little other choice. He explains: “Political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folk. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self- confidence into that.”

But there is another reason why the sports press thrives. In sport, the action occurs in public, the outcomes are clear and they can be explained by reference to a few individuals. By contrast, politics and economics are irritatingly complex. The big events occur in private or are invisible, you can

debate forever whether a government succeeded or not, and the qualities of individuals explain almost nothing.

Nonetheless, the press discusses politics as if it were sport: by concentrating on public performances such as speeches, on events that offer clear outcomes such as elections and on individuals. Many newspapers are presenting the George W. Bush-John Kerry election in the US as a strong but dumb leader versus a clever but wishy-washy guy, based on what the two say in public. This reveals almost nothing about what might happen in the American polity over the next four years.

Yet a serious discussion of politics would require the daily paper to turn into a mix of the journals Applied Economics and Foreign Affairs. No wonder most readers don't bother. “He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day,” says President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card.

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