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The impossibility of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Martin Roberts on the Beeb's coverage of track and field

No doubt like many others beyond – shall we say – the first flush of youth, yesterday evening I tuned in to watch Jo Pavey’s progress and eventual triumph in the European Athletics Championships women’s 10,000 metres final. The mother-of-two, who will be celebrating her 41st birthday in a month’s time, carried with her the support of every uncommitted television viewer as she gritted her teeth, struck for home with two laps to go and was still going away from the field as she crossed the line to become the oldest-ever female European athletics champion.

It was a victory to warm the cockles of every pacemaker-driven heart.

Today I write as a viewer of recent BBC television coverage of major track and field meetings – specifically the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the just-begun European Championships in Zurich.

In advance of the former, I was determined not to get too excited and not to watch too much. In the event, I managed only the first of these.

Let us be honest – in the scheme of global athletics, the Commonwealth Games is second-rate fare. It’s been reduced to a four-yearly opportunity (for those to whom such things matter) to celebrate the existence, or should I say continuation, of the Commonwealth … and a similar opportunity for all sorts of athletes – who have achieved international qualification marks – to get gongs that, long after their sporting careers are over, will stand as tangible proof that at some point in their past they were more than just contenders.

The BBC sports department has long been between a rock and a hard place. With the Commonwealth Games and European Championships being two of the few sporting events for which they have been able to obtain broadcasting rights, they had to make the most of them.

Having, in the cause of politically-correct diversity, spent untold hundreds of millions making the ridiculous move of as much of its general and sports programming production as it could to Salford just as the 2008 global financial crisis was coming to its height, it was only to be expected that the Beeb would then move the same personnel even further north to Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games – firstly, because it physically could and secondly, because it would demonstrate to the woad-spattered, kilt-wearing, hordes how much the United Kingdom’s national broadcaster loved them ahead of their independence referendum.

However, when you have an athletics gathering in which standards and participation are both low, as the anchor broadcaster, you have a fundamental problem.

Two examples. The rule that every Commonwealth country is entitled to send a competitor to every event inevitably resulted in the sight of representatives from small islands in the Pacific being lapped umpteen times in the distance races, whilst proceeding at speeds that would barely do  justice to fifth place in a English Sunday school sports day.

Separately, I counted just 17 participants on the start-line for the women’s marathon and only about 40 for the men’s equivalent.

BBC SportThe BBC studio presenting line-up for track and field – Gabby Logan, Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis, Michael Johnson, Paula Radcliffe and Colin Jackson – did their best to ‘big up’ the undoubted enthusiasm of the Hampden Park crowd (although I personally felt this originated as much with the non-Scot attendees from all over the Commonwealth as it did the locals) and the status of the individual events and participants.

Sadly, generally, the Commonwealth Games are dominated by the Old (white) Commonwealth countries because they are the most advanced – both economically and in terms of sports structures, coaching and support. Even so, the BBC presenters were hard-pressed to explain away the ever-lengthening list of under-par performances by home countries’ participants – due to lack of form, injury or the fact that this Games had just come too early for them after their recent issues.

He [or she] will be disappointed with that” became such a regular mantra that I began to ask myself why the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish selectors bothered to include in their teams quite so many who were unlikely to perform their best, let alone reach the podium.

Last night saw the opening of BBC coverage of the European Championships. I enjoyed the opening sequence, setting the Zurich scene, on the edge of a lake and surrounded by beautiful mountain landscapes. It looked spectacular and well worth adding to my ‘bucket list’ of places to visit.

Having endured such crass BBC gimmicks at the Commonwealth Games as the ‘Boltmeter’ (a clock counting down the minutes and seconds to Usain Bolt’s appearances in the 4 x 100 metre relay races) in the corner of the screen, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d go for similar at the Europeans.

First, there were three eight-foot cardboard cut-outs of the championships mascot in the studio, on which Gabby Logan is apparently going to stick photographs of Brit medal winners. Secondly, a giant Swiss cow-bell will be brought on – by an unseen member of the production staff – and rung every time something happens (I didn’t catch what).

Even Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson rolled their eyes as Gabby explained all this to the viewers.

To be frank, I can no longer watch track and field meets with the respect and interest that I would wish. Given the extent of performance-enhancing drug-taking and the authorities’ lax attitudes to dealing with the problem, I feel forced to take them all with a large pinch of salt, even as I’m watching them.

I don’t entirely blame the presenters.

When, as with the Commonwealth Games, the BBC is employing you to give the viewers the most worthwhile and impressive coverage possible, you can hardly open your contribution by saying:

Good afternoon – sadly, as far as I’m concerned, the standard of what you’re about to see is actually pretty average, but – no matter – I’m going to do my utmost to be relentlessly upbeat about it all for the next three and a half hours …”

Fingers crossed then, for the remaining five days of the European Championships …

About Martin Roberts

A former motoring journalist, Martin lists amongst his greatest achievements giving up smoking. Three times. He holds to the view that growing old is not for the faint-hearted. More Posts