From Telex and Tandys to the all-singing laptop

You think you’ve got it tough with a dodgy wifi connection? Pah! Luxury… The SJA’s former Treasurer, NEIL WILSON, recalls a sports writer’s lot from the not so distant past

Let me dispense first with a mea culpa… I sat on a small committee of journalists advising London’s Olympic organisers which did not raise much objection to a charge of up to £150 for all-singing, all-dancing access to the official information service at the 2012 Olympic Games.

"It'll do what? Let me send pictures? And take the pictures? You must be joking..."
“It’ll do what? Let me send pictures? And take the pictures? You must be joking…”

Coming from a generation which thought that an Olivetti portable typewriter and a telephone box were cutting edge technology, that committee’s old guard thought the charge for LOCOG’s Info+ to be one of life’s great bargains.

It was never thus in our time. Not much further into the dim and distant past were carrier pigeons and telegrams. But when I covered my first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, the phone at your desk in the tribune, booked in advance at great expense, was your only lifeline to your newspaper.

Wherever you covered sporting events, your media organisation had to book a telephone ahead of your arrival. Once, when the man from The Sun covered Seb Coe running in the Yorkshire championships at a little local track, he found his ordered phone seated on the lawn mower in the groundsman’s hut.

In Britain, local news agencies turned a considerable profit from owning all the phones in press boxes at football grounds and renting them out. On occasions, on a job, you would be reduced to knocking on doors to ask folk to use their private phones.

There was a time before direct dialling when calls had to be placed through an operator. On rare occasions, you would be put through immediately. More often, you would have to wait for the operator to call back.

In the 1960s, when a shared phone in a tribune in Athens rang beside an impatient Chris Brasher, a 1956 Olympic champion but then the athletics correspondent of The Observer, he said briskly, “Copy, please”, and ad-libbed a thousand words… to the Sunday Express. It had been their correspondent’s call. The rival sheet was generous enough to have the copy biked around to its intended destination.

Phone calls from foreign parts were often a lottery. One British correspondent who had waited a while for his call to file copy was put through to his newspaper switchboard, said his name and was told, “No, sorry, he’s abroad”, whereupon the operator hung up. He never got another call through.

If you did get a call out, your life was in those copytakers’ hands. A word out of place and the line would be cut. “Much more of this?” was the regular refrain of copytakers to persuade you to hurry.

The great Ian Wooldridge once fell out with a pedantic Daily Mail copytaker who insisted that he could not possibly say that Liverpool’s match was being played at Anfield. It could only be A Field.

The Tandy, the sports writer's "laptop" by the late 1980s
The Tandy, the sports writer’s “laptop” by the late 1980s

The alternative to the copytaker, possible when there was no impending deadline, was the Telex machine, a huge object that had a keyboard which turned your words into holes in a paper tape which, miraculously, came out again as words at the other end. Or did, sometimes.

Awaiting evening paper copy that Alan Hubbard should have filed an hour earlier from the 1970 World Cup, I was nervously contemplating a call to our man in Mexico which would wake him in the small hours. Then the phone rang. It was an agricultural station in Cambridge wondering if we knew anything about a long piece they had received about Alf Ramsey.

The boxing writers in 1974 who arrived at the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa found a row of gleaming new Telexes in the marquee that was to serve as the press centre. Their joy was short-lived. A look outside the tent revealed that none were attached to telephone cables.

I was taught how to work a Telex. It never came in useful.

Far better to find the local Telex office, cross palms with silver and hope for the best that it would arrive where intended. Like most technology, you can be sure that as soon as you mastered it, something else would replace it.

Such as the PortaBubble, the first computer offered to journalists.

Not many ever came to use it. It was an idea ahead of its time. It was just too unpredictable and too heavy, the non-portable portable.

Randall Northam, who succeeded me as SJA Treasurer, recalls using the PortaBubble first at the 1982 World Cup. It had one massive flaw. There was no “Save” button. So when an unhelpful Spanish official, anxious, perhaps, to get home, indicated to the working press that it was time to go by flicking the lights in the press centre off and on, every word of his carefully drafted report was lost.

Neil Wilson denies being able to remember this early mobile phone, though he did have to call out the AA when he had difficulties with one
Neil Wilson denies being able to remember this early “mobile phone”, though he did have to call out the AA once when he had difficulties with his brick-like device

I remember Northam taking the PortaBubble that same year to an athletics meeting in Eugene, Oregon, where Olympic 100 metres champion Allan Wells was racing prior to the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, our eventual destination. We were booked into one of those American hotels where rooms were big enough to host Super Bowl, an electrical plug on one side and the telephone point on the other. The PortaBubble needed both simultaneously. But never the twain met.

So the PortaBubble was shorter lived than silent movies or Betamax. Next up was the Tandy, a no-frills computer that did nothing more than file words. No spread-sheets, Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader. All before their time. It did nothing more than it said on the tin, which is exactly what journalists wanted.

It had one flaw. To send a message, it had to be connected to a telephone through rubber couplers which had to be placed over the ear and mouth pieces of the telephone. Of course, telephone handsets come in all shapes and sizes. The Tandy’s rubber couplers fitted some, but not others.

Extraneous noises could interfere with transmission if the couplers did not fit perfectly. Even those that did fit well could not cope with much stadium noise. The Letzigrund in Zurich, where the Weltklasse athletics meeting is held annually, allowed spectators to drum on metal perimeter advertising boards 20 metres from the press tribune. The Tandy never coped. Dismantling the phone to attach crocodile clips to the internal wiring to bypass the couplers usually saved the day. A screwdriver became essential equipment for journalists.

The Daily Telegraph was so concerned that its team at the 1988 Olympic Games would not be able to cope in Seoul that they accredited a Scottish computer technician to accompany them. He soon became known as MacTandy, the friend of every other newspaperman there.

Reporters were fortunate. In the 1980s, photographers were still humping cases full of equipment to develop their pictures and transmit them. I came back to a hotel room I shared with one photographer at a World Cup skiing event in Val d’Isere to find the entire bathroom hung with drying film, the bed covered with the machine to file it and the phone dismantled from the wall point. I have never shared with a photographer again, but with the advent of digital photography, the snappers’ work is often done before the end of a sports match.

It seems hard to believe today that a computer had to be allied to a phone, or at least a phone point. We are not talking ancient history here, but Olympic Games as recent as the 1990s.

Those were days long before the “smart” phone. Before mobile phones, sports reporters would file their copy, check with their desks later for any queries, and knew then they could slip off to the nearest hostelry with the certainty that nobody from the office could contact them again.

The mobile phone has ruined life as we knew it. At first they were laughable, the size of a brick and “portable” only if you were pushing a wheelbarrow. My first was so huge that when I dropped it into the engine housing of my car while topping up the radiator, I had to call the AA. It was firmly wedged in the fan.

Range was another deficiency, or otherwise the perfect excuse for those who wanted to stay incommunicado. No chance of that now. Today’s mobile is not the lifeline a phone once was for a sports reporter, but a manacle securing you 24/7 to the beck-and-call of the desk.

Times have come full circle. When I suggested to the Daily Mail sportsdesk recently that they should phone me after a certain hour on my home number, I was told they did not have a list of home numbers, only mobiles.

At the 2012 Olympic Games, the tribunes will be cabled to provide a fast broadband link for filing copy from laptops so sophisticated that boiling an egg is only just beyond them. And it will be a two-way flow. Those same cables are capable of bringing direct to your laptop the results, news flashes, quick quotes and even travel information.

One app offered me recently for my laptop claimed it could turn my spoken word into typed copy. Rather like having your own personal copytaker. For all I know, it is programmed to ask, “Much more of this?”

  • This is an edited version of an article first published in the SJA’s 2012 London Olympics magazine
  • What have been your good, and bad, wifi experiences when working at sports events? What is the stadium best-served by wifi? And the worst?
  • The SJA wants to hear from our members – photographers as well as reporters, broadcasters and editors – of their tales of technological triumph and disasters.
  • Email your comments to, with “Wifi” in the subject field. That’s if you can get your wifi to work, of course…


  • The SJA is the largest member organisation of sports media professionals in the world. Join us: Click here for more details
  • This year, the SJA’s nominated good cause is The Journalists’ Charity. To find out more and how you can donate on a one-off or regular basis, go to
  • The SJA is the largest member organisation of sports media professionals in the world. Join us: Click here for more details
  • This year, the SJA’s nominated good cause is The Journalists’ Charity. To find out more and how you can donate on a one-off or regular basis, go to


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