September 05, 2002

ME SO KOURNIKOVA: Sports Illustrated

ME SO KOURNIKOVA: Sports Illustrated has been doing a lot of things right since new editor Terry "Big Sky" McConnell took over last spring, in the area of feature writing- most notably Gary Smith's piece last month on the fight over Barry Bonds' 73rd home run ball and William Nack's feature two weeks ago on the 30th anniversary of the Munich Olympic massacre. With the exception of the new Page Six-like "Sports Beat" page, the magazine has generally gotten more readable and enjoyable, without sacrificing any of its integrity or journalistic quality. Until last week, that is, when they pretty much threw it all to the winds with one mind-boggling breach of editorial judgment.
In last week's issue SI ran a profile of Simonya Popova, an up-and-coming women's tennis star from Uzbekistan who has the skills of the Williams sisters and the looks of Anna Kournikova. Problem is, Popova doesn't actually exist. She was invented by writer Jon Wertheim, who defended his story as a satirical "work of fiction," meant to parody both Kournikova and Williams-mania and also reference the new movie "Simone" (about a fictional, computer-generated movie star; the "photo" of Popova included with the story is a computer-generated photo illustration). The Popova hoax was also in the tradition of Sidd Finch, a Mets pitching prospect who purportedly threw 168 miles per hour but turned out to be about as real as the Mets' 2002 playoff hopes.
I have a few problems with this reasoning. The Finch hoax, first of all, was published in SI on April Fools' Day and most people figured out the joke relatively quickly in that context. The movie "Simone" is so far below the cultural radar that most readers probably didn't even think to make that connection. It strongly hurts Sports Illustrated's credibility when they're randomly inserting fake stories in with all the real ones and it's up to their readers to guess. And worst of all, the story was pointless- there are several different young female tennis players who are both attractive and skillful, so there's no point in making up a fake one. Let's hope SI learns from this brouhaha and decides to limit its articles in the future to truthful material.

Posted by Stephen Silver at September 5, 2002 11:56 PM
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