Alan Hubbard

The fact that it needed International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to make personal contact with the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and assure the world of her safety is a further example of how sport has established itself as a political player on the world stage. The mystery of her apparent temporary disappearance may remain unsolved for the moment but at least she appears to be in good health, physically at least.

Bach seems satisfied that all is well with the three-time Olympian who hitherto was not seen in public since November 2 following accusations purporting to be from her that she had been sexually assaulted by a high-ranking Chinese political figure.

While we await further developments it is significant to note that it was the IOC which was chosen as the vehicle for her seemingly well-orchestrated reappearance. Surely this underlines the value of sport to global society as a means of communication. There is little doubt that the Chinese did not wish their hosting of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year to be impaired in anyway.

Hence the desire to employ what might be termed "Peng Pong Diplomacy".

The importance of sport has never been more paramount. Fiscal authorities will tell you that it now ranks in the top four wealth-creating commodities. The term for it is ubiquitous - it Is here, there and everywhere.

Nelson Mandela was so right when he said sport has the power to change the world, to inspire and to unite, while author George Orwell labelled it a substitute for war.

And never has it been a more prominent factor in our daily lives than it is now.

Peng Shuai appeared at three Olympic Games, and concerns remain over her well-being ©Getty Images
Peng Shuai appeared at three Olympic Games, and concerns remain over her well-being ©Getty Images

When I first started out in journalism well over half a century ago, all one really needed to be a sportswriter was a pen, notebook, some working knowledge of the game being covered and the ability to run faster than rival reporters to the nearest pubic phone box when the final whistle blew. Plus the ability to spin a few words of course.

Covering sport was a different world then. I’m quite frequently asked by aspiring young journos how they should equip themselves for reporting on sport.

The renowned American scribe Red Smith once opined that, "Sports writing is easy. All you do is sit as a typewriter and sweat blood!"

To an extent that still applies these days as my advice, albeit slightly tongue in cheek, for any wannabe Hugh McIlvanney. Obtain a degree not just in English, but computer studies, geopolitics, economics, medicine and law. And be a dedicated follower of fashion.

For sport covers all aspects. It is no longer the toy department of the media store, tucked away at the back end of the book. Open any newspaper and you will find it not only in the bulky section which is devoted to the subject, but on the news pages, business pages and crime pages - even fashion supplements.

Sportsbiz is big biz, arguably more so than showbiz these days.

George Orwell once labelled sport a substitute for war and it certainly is a theatre for geopolitical tensions ©Getty Images
George Orwell once labelled sport a substitute for war and it certainly is a theatre for geopolitical tensions ©Getty Images

What’s more, as sport expands into such diverse territories those of us covering it need to have at least a working knowledge of pharmacy. It has become a matter of knowing your anabolics from your diuretics.

There are many good things to be written about sport, although newspapers and TV bulletins do not shy away from concentrating on the bad.

For years sport's ills simmered beneath the surface only to erupt like that volcano now spreading molten lava over one of the Canary Islands.

Doping, racism, corruption, cheating and other assorted aberrations - sport has suffered the lot of late. Yet it survives - and prospers - because in essence it really is a metaphor for life itself. Even ardent couch potatoes eventually succumb to it on the box, where it now proliferates on virtually every channel.

It has also become politically weaponised far too easily.

So, is this the time to draw a breath and ponder whether much as we love it, sport is getting too big for its boots?