Who said Channel 4 wasn’t doing reality TV any more? Live television coverage of the athletics world championships from Korea offer us Big Bolt instead of Big Brother, writes STEVEN DOWNES
It was not quite a cleansweep like the Kenya women managed in the marathon, but Channel 4’s coverage from Daegu of the athletics world championships overnight managed to get off to a pretty decent start. Even if, like those Kenyans, the C4 team managed to trip up one another on occasion.
Having been off track for a dozen years, C4 is at the world’s third biggest sports event, taking the Korean host broadcaster’s feed and using enough broadcasters for two relay squads to put their voices over the pictures.
The strengths of the coverage are undoubtedly the ebullient Rob Walker and the calm and inquisitive Sonja McLaughlan, who between them raise the question of how BBC Sport ever let them go elsewhere. But C4 has also put a couple of sports broadcasting rough diamonds behind their lip mikes.
C4 dived straight in to the action, at the mess that was the city centre start of the marathon, with no build-up or preview before their 1am on-air time, a curious scheduling decision since it failed to promote the station’s new-found enthusiasm for track and field. That’s something it will need to build upon before next year’s Paralympics.
This, after all, is not the stage-managed Big Brother: this is real reality television.
They were on air for the next four hours-plus, without an ad break, matching stride for stride Eurosport’s excellent commentary team of Tim Hutchings and Martin Gillingham, who somehow master most of the action points of their coverage through simple hard work and preparation.
Commentary on out-of-stadium events such as the marathon can be a tricky operation, not least in terms of “filling” all that air time. And without wishing to be too harsh on the C4 team, who did not have much to work with, the first hour of this race was made to seem extremely D.U.L.L.
It was soon clear that C4 had no spotters out on the course, leaving the commentators exposed, entirely dependent for news of runners further down the field – such as the Brits – on the organisers’ 5km splits. “Unless something’s happened that we haven’t seen, they are all there,” Walker said. Quite remarkable, as someone once said.
Alongside Walker in the tribune at the stadium watching the race off their own TV screens was the former BBC Radio athletics commentator John Rawling. And it was at least 40 minutes into the longest women’s event before Rawling cracked and mentioned the men’s shortest event, the 100 metres and Usain Bolt.
You sensed the relief when, after an hour’s running through the streets of Daegu, there was some action starting on the track, with discus and pole vault qualifying and the decathlon. And for C4 that meant the entry of Dean Macey, the former Commonwealth champion, who when competing was always a highlight for reporters, his off-the-cuff remarks in the mixed zone usually providing enough material for an entire season.
Luckily for C4, Macey has lost none of his insight nor his charm. He also shows flair for originality, eschewing the cliché: “Look at that – you could get a hippopotamus between him and the bar,” said Macey vividly describing a clearance in the pole vault. He even offers context – the height of a door compared to a high jump; the length of a football pitch for a hammer throw.
Bland he is not. With his refreshing, barely polished Canvey Island tones, Macey also has the advantage that he sounds nothing like Ron Pickering/Stuart Storey/Paul Dickenson (could you ever tell one from the other?).
That differentiation in the commentary box, in these post-The Day Today times, is important. Which is another plus for C4’s use of Katharine Merry. With her slightly deep female voice, she could develop into a real commentary box success, the first British woman to do so in athletics.
Unfortunately, though, Rawling has a tendency to slip into moments of Partridge-esque nonsense (“He’s a real talent, Dean”, A-ha!). He also committed the cardinal error of failing to learn from what he was watching. Thus, at the 25km drinks station, when the Ethiopian marathoners sped to the front of the field for the fifth time –just to get a clear run at their water bottles, as they had at each previous drinks station – so Rawling, for the fourth or fifth time, and having first done it as early as 18 minutes in to the race, miscalled this as the Africans making a “significant” break. Which they weren’t.
The parody-soundalike spilled over into the 100m preliminary rounds, which Rawling turned into a junior school geography lesson, managing to patronise the competitors (and oh, their funny names!), as well as the viewers.
There was even a near-Colemanballs moment when former 400m world champion Christine Ohuruogu was disqualified without racing a step, as Rawling started (but just stopped himself) saying that she held her hands in her head. Like an old pro, Rawling recovered well, ably helped by some bright input from Merry.
Alongside Rawling, though, Walker is a genuine enthusiast who calls the races until he is almost hoarse, clearly displaying his deep-seated knowledge of his subject. He is an outstanding example to show commissioning editors that you do not need to have captained your country nor to have triple jumped 18 metres to provide insight and cogent sports commentary.
That came to the fore when Edna Kiplagat was tripped when in the lead in the marathon: Walker’s commentary was clear, assured and spot on.
Running the C4 relay squad’s anchor leg with his usual authority is star pundit Michael Johnson, also pinched from the Beeb.
The American remains unafraid to confront issues head-on, such as when he dismissed the conventional, and simplistic, view of Oscar Pistorius’s presence at the championships, and questioned whether the South African amputee’s springed heels offers him an advantage when racing able-bodied runners. Here’s an expert pundit who is intelligent and who clearly does some research.
Some of the unilateral C4 camerawork, such as from the mixed zone with McLaughlan, tended towards the eccentric, and the direction missed the mark at times. Instead of a live Ohuruogu interview, in which McLaughlan had the sensitivity and the wit to keep quiet, and let the runner’s silent misery speak volumes, they went to an ad break (come the daylight hours, inevitably the channel opted to pay the bills). The interview was shown on tape delay.
Ortis Deley? C4’s chosen frontman, plucked from kids and music TV, had a terrible morning of fluffed live links and hesitant intros. First night nerves?
He could not even get his main commentators’ names right (on at least two occasions), mispronounced the name of 800m world record-holder David Rudisha (“Rushida”?) and he butchered an ill-rehearsed gag about Usain Bolt’s full name. Deley was not alone in this in the C4 coverage, however. How about this string of misspellings and inaccuracies in the intro on the C4 website: “The much anticipated World Athletics Championships begins on 27 September in Deagu“?
Deley was evidently without an autocue, but nor had he learned his script, judging by his constant reference to his notes. Only 800-metre runner Michael Rimmer got off to a more uncertain start in Daegu, and he’s on his way home now.
But not before McLaughlan got a decent interview out of him.
- As well as being secretary of the SJA, Steven Downes has won awards for his athletics writing and a Royal Television Society for sports news coverage
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