Last night I watched the Anniversary Games, sponsored by Sainsburys, held at the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – firstly, on BBC3 from 7.00pm to 8.00pm and then, from 8.00pm to 9.00pm, on BBC2. Although it was billed to be going on for another hour, I bailed out because 9.00pm is my bedtime and anyway, frankly, I’d seen just about as much track & field as I could take by then.
Like I’d guess any sports fan, certainly one of my vintage, I had some truly magnificent memories of athletics, both Olympic and otherwise. Even I don’t have to think too hard to recall the triumphs of Carl Lewis, Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Lasse Viren, Daley Thompson, Ed Moses, Michael Johnson, and yes, even Usain Bolt.
However, the biggest trouble with athletics generally – more than its drugs cheats, by whom the sport (for some like me) has been, and will remain forever, tarnished – is its television punditry and commentating.
There’s an unwritten conspiracy going on between the sport’s governing authorities and the BBC – and probably most other broadcasters – as to how the latter reports upon and promotes the world of athletics.
The amount of syrupy hype that surrounds every home athlete, young or old, good or hopeless, famous or obscure, has to be witnessed to believed.
Athletics is a tough, demanding sport that requires huge dedication, commitment and endless training. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
And yet every participant in these televised (near or at international standard) events is built up in preview as if they’re eternally just four to six weeks away from challenging for Olympic gold – this just before they trail around the 400 metres track in 7th or 8th place and then give a brief and breathless trackside interview in which they say everything is “on track for Beijing” (or wherever the biggest meeting of the year is going to be taking place), wave to the camera and then walk off once more to the warm-down area, the locker room and the warm and welcoming bosom of obscurity.
Last night Gabby Logan, to me initially barely recognisable because she had her hair tied back in a severe bun, was playing the part of BBC anchor, aided and abetted by Denise Lewis, Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram and Brendan Foster in their ‘studio perch’ at the top of the stands.
Thus we had to endure fifteen minutes of guff, with Gaby inviting Denise, Paula and Steve to comment upon her assertion that we were looking forward to an epic night of athletics featuring some of its greatest stars, including Usain Bolt, who would be running in the heats of the Men’s 100 metres towards 8.30pm (would Mr Bolt be hoping to do a fast time, Gaby asked as a final encouragement to her panel to be expansive).
Well, of course, the answer was ‘bleedin’ obvious’. This was fortunate as none of the panel are known for being especially proficient at coming out with anything other than that.
There’s nothing wrong with building up a sport’s star performers. All broadcasters do it. But ultimately, for the seasoned viewer, the process causes post-modern ironic amusement (if that’s the correct term), especially if someone like field events commentator Paul Dickenson is on hand. Every giant Pole or Russian shot putter, or hammer thrower, or javelin thrower, is built up as if they’re from a breed of superhuman that – like some zoo animal species – we should feel privileged to be allowed to watch at play … only for most of them to then trip up on their way into the circle, drop the shot on their foot, or hurl the hammer into the side-netting designed to protect spectators and administrators from injury.
Hyperbole is the chief currency of athletics commentary.
Last night I spent most of my evening’s viewing being bombarded by video trailers and studio discussions building up the forthcoming appearance of Usain Bolt and (later – too late for me at 9.40pm) Mo Farah in the 3000 metres.
All the while the inclement weather was building up and affecting proceedings adversely. The studio pundits began excusing the athletes in advance as we were shown scenes of monsoon-like downpours and general flooding.
In effect the BBC had cleared its channels to feature three hours’ worth of coverage from the Olympic Stadium, first on BBC3 and then BBC2. The general standard of athletics on show was pretty average – for which the athletes could hardly been blamed in the awful weather conditions.
I felt sorry for Gaby and her colleagues.
They would have known well in advance of going on air that the evening was going to be a bit of a washout – literally – and yet, for both professional reasons and the need to please the athletics authority grandees, they were going to have to maintain the impression that the television viewer was being welcomed to join them for probably the greatest athletics meet held since the 2012 Olympics.
Never has so much hot air been generated by so many in respect of so little.