Athletics’ batty Mel was a catcher of the eye

STEVEN DOWNES looks back nearly a quarter of a century to remember Mel Batty, and a time when athletics broadcasters made sure that they got the basics right

Pity poor Ortis Deley. Hooked off from fronting Channel 4’s coverage of the athletics world championships from Daegu after just three days.

Front man... well, not any longer. The C4 publicity pic of Ortis Deley and the athletics team

No mention, no explanation was offered when C4 went on air from Daegu at 2am on Tuesday, and instead of the beaming Ortis, there was this other geezer, who had clearly practised his schtick of holding up meeting programmes and throwing them to the floor with a thud, as he explained the theory behind the “Curse of the Programme”.

Ah, if only Ortis had had such good material to work with. But as we all know, he did. He just never quite, err, managed, errr, to look up… ahhh, OK, from his notes, err, and, ooh, tell us.

Charlie Sale in this morning’s Daily Mail confirmed that C4 had bitten the bullet and then given it to the hapless Deley.

“Cringeworthy” and “embarrassing” were two of the kinder things said about the sometime actor and former presenter of The Gadget Show (apparently it is something shown on Channel 5). It was an object lesson in quite how difficult it must be to present live television, especially when you have no idea at all what you are talking about.

This video selection, now doing the rounds on YouTube, will not be making it on to Deley’s showreel any time soon. [THU UPDATE: Channel 4 has now blocked this clip for “copyright reasons”. Not “embarrassment reasons” then. Notably, the stylish C4 athletics ident, featuring Usain Bolt, remains available on YouTube, without any copyright concerns]

The final straw (of many) must have been when Michael Johnson was forced to abandon a fascinating interview with Seb Coe about the IAAF’s false start rule and go to an ad break: Ortis, the professional presenter, had gone AWOL and lost command of the studio altogether.

Deley will be the scapegoat for this week’s flawed C4 coverage, which while ad-free through the wee small hours, goes revenue crazy once it is daylight in Britain. The coverage is so fragmented by ad breaks that you half expect them to ask Usain Bolt to stop at the halfway point of his 200 metres race later this week to enable them to run yet another plug for meerkats.

Yet Deley’s performance, even his selection to front the coverage, as well as much of the over-produced lines of script the rest of the C4 commentary team have been spouting, all probably stems from some TV executive in offices in London who made a decision to ensure that their athletics coverage should appeal to “people who do not like sport”, without ever once considering the obvious contradiction of that ambition.

Hence we get the bungled links about five-metre poles and houses, or the number of laps in a steeplechase. It’s as if they’ve gone out of their way to create a sort of BBC-but-for-buffoons version of athletics coverage, without realising that most of the BBC’s audience tired of being patronised years ago.

And who was it that allowed Deley to go on air so obviously unprepared?

C4 has been making many of the same mistakes for which the BBC is often criticised, such as endless natter or multi-angled replays of track events, or interviews that tend towards the banal, when there’s perfectly decent and interesting live action from field events going on. The misassumption is that just because someone was a decent athlete once upon a time, they will naturally be able to articulate insight and enthusiasm. Just because Steve Cram and, now, Dean Macey manage to do this with aplomb, not everyone is quite so able.

And Macey, as has Katharine Merry and Iwan Thomas, has clearly been “got at” by the C4 producers, reminded to remind us incessantly of their own careers. “Tell them what it must be like…” you can almost imagine being said into their ear while live on air. Which occasionally is relevant and interesting. But not all the time.


ONE UNHERALDED MEMBER of the C4 team in Daegu appears to be Wilbert Greaves, the former international hurdler and sometime assistant to Andy Norman, who is working as a “catcher”, or “athletes’ liaison” – basically the person who grabs the athletes as they head into the Mixed Zone and puts them in front of Sonja McLaughlan just as the camera’s red light goes on.

Mel Batty, centre, pictured before a road race in Rome in 1981 with the late Chris Brasher, the former president of the SJA, and Randall Northam, the current treasurer

The BBC uses an Australian, Maurie Plant, who was banned for life from being involved in his country’s athletics teams because he had deliberately taken urine from one competitor in order to pass it off as the sample of another who would have had a problem if they had been properly drug tested. This at a meet staged in the UK. The BBC apparently sees no problem with continuing to use this piss-taker.

During his own career, Wilbert was never particularly quick out of his blocks, so it is perhaps no surprise that when the big moment came, and C4 wanted to speak to Usain Bolt after that race, Bolt had, well, bolted…

It brought to mind an anecdote that Jim Rosenthal tells, going back to the second world championships, staged in Rome in 1987, at a time when ITV still covered the big athletics events and the Olympics, in direct competition with the Beeb. So when the 100 metres finalists were lining up at one end of the Stadio Olimpico, at the other end was the BBC’s catcher and alongside him was ITV’s Mel Batty.

Mel was a lovely bloke, a former English cross-country champion and world record-holder for 10 miles, who had an eccentric line in business. It was Batty who had the franchise for Brooks running shoes in the 1980s, and who signed a big dollar endorsement deal with Zola Budd, when she was still the world’s most famous barefoot runner.

Mel was a great mate to everyone in the press box, always helpful with quotes and news, and he was also a regular at BAWA bashes. Sadly, on Monday this week, after 10 days in hospital in Southend, Mel died. He was 71.

In 1987, the Rome 100m was the contest between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson. Johnson won, in world record time. Who would get the first TV interview with the new world champion?

In almost less time than it had taken him to run the race, Johnson was brought over to Rosenthal and the ITV camera by the ever-diligent and determined Mel Batty.

After a couple of minutes of live TV with the Canadian, the camera went off, and Rosenthal thanked Johnson.

At which point Johnson turned to Batty and said, “It’s alright, Mel. You can let go of my arm now.”


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