Downhill all the way with BBC in Vancouver

VANCOUVER DIARY: Dealing with death on the luge track, and a set of sporting events largely unknown and misunderstood in Britain, has seen the BBC struggle in its early coverage of the Winter Olympics, writes MICHAEL BUTCHER

In case anyone has wondered if passers-by find it funny when a television presenter wanders through a crowd of people talking to a distant camera, they now have their answer. It didn’t help that it was Clare Balding introducing coverage of the men’s downhill from Whistler on Monday night, but the Japanese tourists nudging each other and stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths as Balding talked to no one in particular summed it up perfectly. Yes, it looks utterly ridiculous.

Earlier, Balding had dealt with the grave news of the death of a luge competitor in an almost dismissive, half-sentence, before moving swiftly on to less unpalatable events, presumably in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, an epic lack of taste under the circumstances. But hey, this is the BBC’s new approach to sport, particularly necessary when Britain is a rank outsider at this snow and ice lark. Somehow the BBC has to persuade viewers it’s a good idea to watch.

The weather in Vancouver has been as much a problem for broadcasters as the competitors. BBC2’s first “live” coverage of sport from Vancouver, in the absence of the postponed men’s downhill, managed to go for more than an hour without showing any live sport. The day’s live action had already been shown, truly live and as it happened, long before on Eurosport. Though at least it gave the BBC’s team a chance to mug up on the ski jumping.

Things did not improve once the downhill got underway on Monday. First, Balding donned her skis and tried to follow Graham Bell, reducing the challenge to the level of the Tamworth Snowdome. Could it get worse? Yes, and a lot, as it turned out, as the real lead challengers were introduced in cartoon character terms: will it be Paradis City or Cushy for Cuche? It was the kind of Primary School flash card approach designed to keep the viewers from reaching for the red button, where there was some riveting action unfolding in the women’s cross-country skiing.

Meanwhile, we then had Balding’s disturbingly glittering lips chatting to the personable and articulate Karen Lee Gartner who took us, for the second day running (or was it third? I’ve lost count), through that win in 1992.

There followed an odd intermission when, of all “experts”, Matthew Pinsent, looking like an extra from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, took us through the drama of Canada trying to win their first gold. He sat among various fans with an oafish grin on his face, loving every failure. Presumably, they chose Canada for this humorous insert because following Britain’s wait for gold could take a few years unless those plucky curlers get us out of jail again.

You could have been forgiven for thinking we had already won something the number of times AJ Rosen appeared on the screen. He was there in the middle of the night and then the following morning. Was it all a dream? In fact, for a good 24 hours, this was AJ Rosen’s Games. Did he really only finish 16th? Where was was that rowing chappy when you craved for someone to put it all into perspective?

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And when Canada ” by now we have all rote-learned to call them the “Crazy Cannucks” or “Cowboys” ” finally did win gold, there was our rowing hero showing he had no idea where he was with a “well-played”. Well played? Did they put up the wrong flash card?

Finally, we got a real interview with a man who knows all about downhill, Franz Klammer, and since he knew what he was talking about, he refused to go along with the by now asphyxiating hyperbole by chucking the suggestion that a downhiller feels fear into the nearest bin. They must have sulked at HQ over that, not following the script Franz, tut, tut.

By this time prayers were being offered up for the action to start, but Miss Balding had one more jewel on offer to the effect that the Norwegian (sorry, “the Giant Viking”, still getting the hang of this commentating lark) Aksel Lund Svindal only blinks once all the way downhill. Clare then blinked massively just to help her Year 5 class understand and so, the first actual downhiller appeared on screen and the suffering was over for another four years.

But what’s this? With the medals already round necks, one Ed Drake of Old Blighty is about to hurtle downhill and Miss instructs us that we have to press the red button to see him. So what’s Ed done to deserve this? Obviously he’s not AJ Rosen calibre.

In the event, the Brit beat the Spaniard and the Chilean, both countries with huge snow-covered peaks. Surely they could have come up with a flash card for someone called Drake?

I think I’ll try Eurosport for the rest of the week. At least you don’t have to look at the presenters.

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