Monday, 17 February 2014


The Winter Olympics is a good way for us to test the quality of commentators, because in both the UK and USA most of the sports are not things television covers regularly, and they are not sports with which the audiences are familiar. Figure skating has a wide appeal; when I worked for ABC and we were programming the Calgary games, we aimed for figure skating and the US hockey team for our prime times every night. The skating would rate about 50% higher—remember hockey is basically a regional thing in the US, while skating has the broad, cross-gender appeal that made gymnastics such a big thing in the post-Korbut, Comaneci era.

Figure skating is basically bowling alley ballet, a sport with the dual drawbacks of first requiring make-up, sequinned costumes, music and choreographers to perform and second being subject to judging, with all its attendant history of corruption and fraud. Yet if anything, skating is more popular now than ever, thanks to 'talent' shows like Dancing On Ice. When you think about it, the Olympic format is almost as close to Ted Mack's Amateur Hour as Dancing, or Strictly, or X Factor. The biggest difference being the figure skating judges are locked into a 1950s aesthetic, and susceptible to bribes, but are not fed clever lines by the producers for the audience's entertainment. If anything though, the 'kiss and cry' area at the Olympics is even more OTT than X Factor.

When I covered Lake Placid, there were 35 medal events; in Sochi there are 98. Sports have been expanded, not often for the better (cf: classic vs freestyle cross country skiing; 'team' figure skating) and new sports have been added, including more judged sports, like freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Of course there are also a couple of events that excite me the way roller derby did when I was 11 years old: short track speedskating and snowboard cross, which are basically the same kind of Ben Hur races, one on ice and the other on snow. But with new sports has come a new, younger audience and a problem for commentators, as I've been discovering watching the BBC coverage.

Snowboarding is analogous to surfing, and the lingo seems to have been built on a gnarly surf base. But surfing has never been in danger of reaching the Olympics. Snowboarding is one of the few sports at the Winter Olympics where the competitors don't dress in lycra bondage gear, and the only one where a competitor (in Vancouver) was barred from the games after testing positive for marijuana, which would imply that it is the only sport where pot is a performance enhancing drug. So it's a young, groovy thing, which means BBC commentators appear to be determined to do the verbal equivalent of a 1440 Yolo flip on every routine. This Jonathan Pearce approach might work on radio, and attract a lot of attention, but it doesn't do much to enlighten the audience. On the other hand, I once asked a snowboarder, while I was doing commentary at the 2005 Winter University Games, what 'huge air' meant, and he said, 'well, like, the air, it was huge'. So now we knew.

On the other hand, you'd think curling would be a natural fit, partly because the Scottish (whoops, I mean British) teams are quite good, and partly because it has the same sort of appeal as snooker, lawn bowls, or even darts. Which means the BBC commentators approach each end with a sort of genteel calm, regardless of how tight the competition is, and even in celebration of a British win have all the reserve of Phil Drabble commiserating with the second place finisher at a sheepdog trial. What would be instructive would be to swap the snowboarding and curling commentary teams around, if only for a day.

Meanwhile, Great Britain & Northern Ireland picked up its first gold medal Friday, in skeleton, and I watched Lizzy Yarnold's impressive win to prepare myself for chat on Saturday morning's World Service Weekend programme. Skeleton bob is basically going down a bobsled run on a sled, head first the way you would on your own Flexible Flyer as a kid. It's been in the Olympics before, on the Cresta run in St. Moritz, and it's probably the most accessible and human of the bob run events: the bobsled itself being conducted inside a bumper car, while the luge, in Tony Kornhesier's great phrase, resembling Dracula going downhill in his coffin.

I caught the last of the four skeleton runs, and it was gripping stuff—with the difference of third and fourth places coming down to .04 seconds (four one-hundreths of one second) over the combined FOUR runs. But when it got to Yarnold and the final run, there was little grip left. She had built up a huge (0.78 seconds!) lead over the first three runs: all she really needed to do was get to the bottom without crashing to win.

This was pointed out, hesitantly by Amy Williams, the skeleton expert commentator, which then set Colin Bryce off into a mad effort to rebuild the tension. Fair enough, because the pair had been pretty good in explaining how the event worked, and the way in which Britain, just like East Germany thirty years ago, had identified athletes to draft into the sport and concentrated on sled technology, so despite not having a track of their own to practice on they had achieved remarkable success. They also drifted into those areas that make you wonder what 'experts' are for. Yes, the racers will enjoy the podium, they will be happy, and yes, they'd really like to win. You do not have to have raced at Olympic level to provide such insights. But once the race started, all explanation was off anyway. 'Speed will be crucial here,' said Bryce, which was self-evident enough, but actually wasn't the most crucial thing. Then he pulled out the commentator's greatest enemy, the cliché's cliché, just before the start. 'Lizzie GOES FOR GOLD FOR BRITAIN' he said, a verbal tabloid headline simple enough for any audience to understand.

The rest of the run was basically Amy Williams cheering Lizzy down the course. This raises the interesting point of why you need an expert commentator to cheer. Why not have Lizzie's husband, or grandmother, or next-door-neighbor, or Brian Blessed instead? At one point Bryce interjected 'she's flying now', which was daring in the sense that he didn't have David Vine's Ski Sunday tape delay to prove him hundreths of a second right, but basically anyone going down a bob run on a skeleton is figuratively flying. It is a difficult thing: momentum means some bumps will slow you down less than you might think, and there's no way for the naked eye to calculate how many hundreths of a second may have been gained or lost. Yarnold won by almost a full second (0.96) but remember that's a full second after FOUR runs. And as she celebrated, Amy Williams was 'crying for her, crying for everyone' which maybe Brian Blessed could not have done better, and I appreciated her tears for me.

Yarnold herself seems completely likeable, a great person for a great story, and I suppose we can expect the Seoul Hockey Syndrome to mean she will appear on a lot more BBC in the future than she has in the past. But I was amused by her nickname, which is 'The Yarnold'. I have written before about the remarkable flatness of British nicknames. If Mean Joe Green had been British, his nickname would have been 'Greeners'. Cool Papa Bell would have been 'Bellsy'. And Broadway Joe Namath would have been lucky to be 'Joe'. Or maybe 'The Namath'.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Or her new nickname "The Yar-gold", which is almost certainly another one of those "verbal tabloid headlines" :-D