The making of Gary Al-Smith: Journalist of the Year at 48th annual SWAG awards
Gary Al-Smith has been named the Sports Writers Association of Ghana (SWAG) Sports Journalist of the Year.
The SWAG Awards is the longest-running professional awards scheme in Ghana’s history, having been first held in 1975. The 48th edition came off at the Accra International Conference Center on Friday, January 12.
Al-Smith’s award was the final accolade of the night and he was decorated with honours from the Vice President of Ghana, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia – Special Guest of Honour. In recognition of his efforts, the journalist was given a medal and a plaque. In addition, Vice President Bawumia gave a personal cash prize.
Gary, who has been Head of Sports at the Joy Brands (in charge of Joy FM, JoyNews, JoyPrime, Hitz FM and Myjoyonline) since October 2021, said he was humbled by the honour.
“Thirteen months ago by now, I was in a hospital bed in Qatar, fighting for my life. Today, here I am, alive, humbled and thankful – thankful to God, my family, colleagues at the Multimedia Group; at Citi FM, my former employer and everyone at SWAG for finding my work worthy of this accolade.”
Dr. Bawumia, after giving Al-Smith a warm embrace on stage, described the journalist as “consistent” and said the accolade was “very deserved and long overdue.”
A solid track recordGary has, over the years, carved a niche as more than a sports journalist, using his voice and influence to speak to issues outside the traditional sports arena. He is one of the few sports journalists with crossover appeal, comfortable in speaking about sports as he is with offering thoughts on general national discussions, and publicly debating political figures on issues of public concern.
But where did it all begin?He came to national attention in 2010 when, fresh out of the Ghana Institute of Journalism, he was employed by American broadcaster, ESPN, for its digital coverage of the World Cup. Having introduced himself as ESPN correspondent at one Black Stars press conference, then Ghana Football Association President Kwesi Nyantakyi famously quipped: “Small boy like you? ESPN?”
Gary responded: “Yes, sir. I actually also write for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, too” to uproarious laughter from all gathered.
Less than a year later, South African broadcaster SuperSport snapped him as online Ghana editor, a position he held for four years until 2015. That position saw him make frequent trips to the company’s Johannesburg studios for the popular Soccer Africa program.
All the while, Al-Smith kept building an international reputation, debuting for CNN and the New York Times in 2014, Al Jazeera in 2015, and a slew of others.
Aiming for global, never forgetting the localWhile spreading his wings in the global media circuit, Gary was digging his heels as an authority on local sporting matters, leading him to pitch camp as assistant sports editor – and then editor – at Citi FM in Ghana’s capital between 2012 and February 2015.
There were two highlights of his work at Citi FM: helming the coverage of the station’s popular English Premier League radio broadcast, where his shows were peppered with fans from around the world; then there was his reporting of the Dzamefe Commission of Inquiry into the Brazil 2014 World Cup fiasco. His in-depth reports on the station’s flagship evening news and detailed online pieces were regularly referenced at Commission hearings.
Crossing carpet to the Multimedia GroupIt was how he leveraged coverage of local and international sporting events and issues on digital media, and his deep network of global contacts, which led to Gary’s capture by the Multimedia Group in February 2015 from Citi FM. The move created a stir because it was the first time a high profile on-air talent had made the move across town from Citi FM to rivals, Joy FM.
In his first few years at the group, Al-Smith’s primary role was to position Joy Sports as a hip-but-trustworthy brand for the youthful demographic in Ghana and abroad.
This led to, among other projects, Gary leading the digital rights acquisition for the Euro 2021 football tournament, making it the first – and only time so far – a Ghanaian broadcaster has been given permission to exploit TV commentary for digital media.
From February 2015 until date, Gary has been at the Multimedia Group, while still increasing his footprint in the global arena. He has added Sky Sports, The Athletic, The Guardian and Premier League Productions to his resume – all the while telling stories of African sport through feature profiles and insights into how European sports intersect with Africa.
Gary has also become a respected voice on news from global football governing body, Fifa, particularly after publicly questioning its President, Gianni Infantino, at a 2022 meeting in Qatar about why the football body seems to treat Israel with kid gloves while banning Russia for essentially the same offences.
Today, I finally asked Gianni Infantino that question. Will it now be Fifa policy that any country that invades another will be suspended, as has happened to Russia?His answer was, well… you decide. #JoySports pic.twitter.com/MjZoylrGXf— Gary Al-Smith (@garyalsmith) March 31, 2022
Al-Smith has also long been vocal about how Fifa spreads its vast wealth for the benefit of developing countries, leading the body to give Gary access to their projects in several African countries. As a result, Al-Smith led a documentary team in 2022 to places such as Cape Verde Islands, Guinea, Senegal, Liberia and Gambia to assess the state of how funds are used.
A thought leaderLast year (2023), Gary was selected as Ghana’s voting representative in the recently created Fifa ‘The Best’ Awards, which replaces the erstwhile Fifa World Player of the Year accolade. The journalist is expected in London on Monday, where the ceremony to award the world’s best player of 2023 will be held at the Eventim Apollo.
In November 2021, Gary had become the first Ghanaian journalist to ever cover the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2021, when Lionel Messi won his seventh trophy in Paris France.
Indeed, Al-Smith has, since 2016, been among the voting panel for the annual Top 100 players in the world by The Guardian UK, as well as its critically acclaimed NextGen Series, which profiles the world’s best young football talent.
Gary also previously voted in the BBC African Footballer of the Year awards, but quit in 2016 after he publicly disagreed with its processes.
During Ghana’s 2016 general elections, Al-Smith was credited as being the originator of #CNNGetItRight, a viral hashtag that forced global broadcaster, CNN, to change its negative, condescending (and sometimes misleading) tone with which reporters were covering the polls.
Corporate appealThat same year (2016), Gary was made UNICEF Influencer for Child Rights, with the role of amplifying the work of the Fund and drawing public attention to issues affecting children, nationwide. For the last eight years, he has been travelling around the country to project sites with Wiyaala, Manifest, MzVee and Ameyaw Debrah to assess and communicate the tangible impact of the Fund’s initiatives.
Gary’s authentic voice, whether on sporting or social issues, has made him a favorite of credible brands over the years from diverse portfolios: USAID, Coca Cola, Guinness, MTN, Emirates, Standard Chartered Bank, Old Mutual, Visa, Ghana Psychological Association, and Betway, to mention but a few.
What next?The fresh-faced teenager who left the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School in 2005 has now become, perhaps, the most consistent Ghanaian journalist on the global media scene in the last 15 years. Al-Smith has reported for every major news and sport title there is in the world, and then some.
“I work hard, but so do many others,” he observes. “I used to think that successful people could be self-made. Now, as I get older, I am more convinced that at certain level, the grace of God – or what others call luck – is required to stand out.”
Following the success of the 2022 autobiography of Ghana football legend Asamoah Gyan, which Gary co-authored, the journalist hinted that there is another book in the offing. “Fingers crossed, it should be done early 2025,” he says.
After winning the SWAG Journalist of the Year gong, Gary believes being consistent in voice, holding the powerful to account on behalf of the people, while looking for different ways to excite audiences across platforms will continue to be the way forward.
“Journalists are not the story, and should never be. We leverage our relationships to shine the light onto those without the opportunity to do so, be it in sport or social discourse.”
Al-Smith says he plans to use his tenure as holder of the prestigious accolade to enlist corporate assistance for more professional journalistic training in the country’s challenged areas.
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