There is no rivalry in MotoGP more bitter than that between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner, more bitter even than the one between Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz. It has been a constant element in their relationship since Stoner won his first MotoGP title in 2007 (ironically, Stoner named Rossi as one of his heroes on the t-shirt he wore to celebrate that championship), though hardly a surprise, as the two men are polar opposites in almost every respect, except for their prodigious talent. The rivalry has intensified over the years, stoked by a series of incidents (nicely outlined by the peerless Italian website GPOne.com recently), including the booing of Stoner by Rossi fans at Donington in 2008, the epic battle at Laguna Seca in 2008, and the war of words between the two in 2010, ahead of Rossi's move to Ducati.
The rivalry does not just polarize the two riders, it also polarizes their fans. The comments section of almost any news story featuring the two men is riddled with posts by people blinded by fanaticism, with logic and calm consideration nowhere to be found. This polarization leaves the media with a dilemma: on the one hand, events concerning the two, and verbal exchanges between them need to be treated as newsworthy, and due consideration given to covering them as such. On the other hand, the media operate in the certain knowledge that covering the dispute is sure to sell more newspapers and magazines, generate more traffic to a website, and grab more viewers for a TV show. Reporting on these stories leaves journalists open to charges of sensationalism, but not reporting on them means they can be accused of not doing their jobs.
The dangers of reporting on these incidents were illustrated rather clearly this week, when the latest spat between the two took place. News sites soon picked up on a feature on Valentino Rossi appearing in the latest issue of the Dainese Legends magazine, containing a selection of quotes from the former world champion. One of those quotes read as follows:
“Stoner started to hate me just because he lost,” he says, mischievously. “After that, he always seemed to talk about the past, this race, because he wasn't man enough to understand that at that time, he lost!”
This was immediately picked up by a number of news outlets around the world, and turned into news stories. Once the quotes appeared in the English-language media, they naturally came to the attention of Casey Stoner, who responded on his Twitter page as follows:
I think Valentino feels a little more brave now that I'm not there :)
This was picked up again by the media, and generated another flurry of stories. In turn, those stories generated a flurry of debate, argument and polemic, with more controversy as a result.
This controversy was not the effect intended by Dainese, the Italian motorcycle clothing and sportswear manufacturer (in which Valentino Rossi holds a stake). The Legends magazine is first and foremost a PR vehicle, a glossy publication aimed at promoting the Dainese brand. Generating a storm of controversy surrounding one its key figureheads is not at all what was intended. Dainese does not need the Legends magazine for more brand exposure, it needs it to position the brand in the market: upscale, expensive, stylish. Cheap slanging matches are not part of that image.
So on Saturday, Dainese decided it was in the best interests of its brand to issue a clarification and apology on its Facebook page over the controversy stirred up by the article. The statement read as follows:
Considering the exaggerated echo of an article about the career of Valentino Rossi, we would like to highlight that the words published in the latest issue of the Dainese Legends magazine have been taken out from an old interview and consequently reported out of the original context.
We wish to apologize for all the polemic comments that neither Valentino nor Dainese ever wanted to instigate.
There are two key phrases in the statement. The first is "taken out from an old interview". The Legends magazine is put together by the British PR firm The Church of London, and though beautifully produced, it is very much the product of a PR firm and not a journalistic endeavor. The Rossi story appears to have been crafted from a selection of older interviews, though it is unclear whether the author of the feature in Legends magazine conducted those interviews or not. The story did not make it clear that these were quotes taken from previous interviews, or provide a timeframe within which Rossi may have made those statements.
The second key phrase is "consequently reported out of the original context". And here, journalistic responsibility comes into play. It is December, a test ban is in place, riders and team members are dispersed around the world doing PR work, taking vacations, training and preparing for 2013. For the moment, their lives are less focused around the 2013 MotoGP season, and more on pursuits outside of motorcycle racing. Their phones are often switched off. There is less going on in the world of motorcycle racing, and those involved are much harder to reach and less inclined to take calls.
But column inches still need to be filled, websites have to keep their readers entertained, and racing fans crave news - any news - to tide them over the long, cold, empty months of winter before racing starts again. Features such as that published in Dainese's Legends magazine are a godsend, helping to fill spaces and stories in a barren time indeed for news.
Who is to blame for this? The PR company producing Dainese's Legends magazine, for not providing context about Rossi's statements? The media, for immediately leaping on the stories and reporting them without doing their own checking? The fans, for demanding an unending stream of news stories, to still their hunger for news from the sport they love so much? Or Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner, perhaps, for taking public potshots at each other, the bitterness still lingering on both sides?
I have no answer to this question. But I am fairly sure it will all happen again, and probably very soon.