“Should we send a Jew to cover the Berlin Olympics?”

Television and radio sports commentators, lacking the luxury of time and sub-editors, are prone to error, it is fair to say. But as ANTON RIPPON highlights, none of those working at the London Olympics are likely to deliver commentaries quite like those broadcast from the 1936 Berlin Games

The Opening Ceremony at the 1936 Olympics. There might just be a speech during the ceremony that could be worth a listen, don’t you think?

In February 1936, the BBC faced a dilemma: should it send Olympic gold medallist Harold Abrahams – cue theme tune to Chariots of Fire – to cover that summer’s Berlin Olympics?

Despite Abrahams having converted to Catholicism in 1934, there was no denying his Jewish descent. His father, Isaac, had emigrated to England from Poland during the pogroms, and although the father’s wealth had bought Abrahams a privileged education, the anti-Semitism the boy had suffered at Repton, his public school in Derbyshire, had left deep scars. It would be an ordeal to work in Nazi Germany.

That wasn’t what concerned the BBC’s Controller of Programmes, Cecil Graves, however. He wrote to colleagues: “We all regard the German action against the Jews as quite irrational and intolerable … but would it be discourteous to send a Jew commentator to a country where Jews are taboo?”

Eventually, Graves concluded that the BBC should tell the German broadcaster that it was sending Abrahams, and “leave them to raise any objections”.

Of course, Abrahams did travel, and his radio commentary on his friend, New Zealander Jack Lovelock’s Olympic 1,500 metres victory in Berlin is claimed by some to have set a new standard in live sports commentary: “A hundred yards to go! Come on, Jack!! My God, he’s done it. Jack, come on! Lovelock wins. Five yards, six yards, he wins. He’s won. Hooray!”

But it was Abrahams’s fellow BBC radio commentator who really made a mark for himself, during the opening ceremony of the 1936 Games.

Tommy Woodroofe had risen to the rank of lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy before retiring from active service to try his hand at broadcasting. And in the days when the Corporation was mightily impressed by rank, Woodroofe soon became one of the Beeb’s main commentators.

On Saturday, August 1, 1936, in the Olympic Stadium the speeches had already been going on for far too long when Theodor Lewald, the respectable face of the Berlin organising committee, stepped up to speak. Lewald droned on for 15 minutes, but British radio listeners were left in ignorance as Tommy Woodroofe soon gave up trying to understand what was being said to the huge audience.

Instead, Woodroofe, in his plummy voice, complained that the speech was far too long, and then began to fill in by mentioning the weather, the Hindenburg (the world’s biggest airship, which cruised over the stadium) and anything else that caught his fancy. In particular, he seemed obsessed by the fact that the grass was green. Woodroofe’s concentration eventually lapsed to the point where he missed entirely the moment that Lewald stepped aside and Adolf Hitler came forward to open the Games.

That was as nothing to the following year, however, when Woodroofe excelled himself with a drunken account of the Spithead Naval Review in which he rambled on before the BBC cut in and filled in with 30 unscheduled minutes of dance music.

On that occasion, poor old Tommy’s problem seems to have stemmed from the fact that he was commentating from his old ship, HMS Nelson, and had spent far too long in the wardroom being lavishly entertained by former shipmates.

“At the present moment,” he told listeners, “the whole fleet is lit up. When I say ‘lit up’ I mean lit up by fairy lamps … It’s fantastic. It isn’t a fleet at all. It’s just … it’s fairyland. The whole fleet is in fairyland. Now if you’ll follow me through … if you don’t mind … the next few moments you’ll find the fleet doing odd things.”

Eventually there was an 11-second pause, after which Woodroofe said: “I’m sorry, I was telling people to shut up talking.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Woodroofe kept his job, and commentating on the 1938 FA Cup Final between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, he seemed to become bored with the game and after 29 minutes’ extra time, remarked: “If there is a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat.”

Seconds later, Preston were awarded a penalty from which George Mutch scored. Woodrooffe kept his promise, although Time magazine later reported that the “hat” he ate was in fact a sugar-coated cake.

Will we be treated to similar goings-on in a few weeks time? Almost certainly not. Pity, though.

Anton Rippon’s book Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games, first published in 2006, has just been reissued in paperback (Pen & Sword, £12.99). Click here to order your copy



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