Thursday, September 28, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Standing Still

Jogging's so 90s. The fun's going out of running, so why are the BBC so obsessed with athletics, asks Paul Stump

Uh-oh. Clear the schedules! BBC outside broadcast unit coming through! Prestige event alert!

Trooping of the Colour? Footy? Second Coming in Littlehampton? No. Sunday October 1 saw BBC2's schedule - including the most-improved prog on TV, Country File - wiped because of the Great North Run.

Picture yourself in an agreeable bar in Lille or Bordeaux explaining this to the French. An athletics event that nobody outside Newcastle or BBC sport has ever heard of or cares about, dominating BBC2 for half a day. You couldn't make this fiasco up, and mostly because the BBC already have.

Nobody this writer has ever spoken to - including some enthusiastic runners - can quite source the date of the BBC's fanatical obsession with athletics - sorry, track and field. Some allude to the clout of failed athlete David Coleman in BBC sport. Others cite Sky's big buy-up of sport in the 1990s. There are also those who return to the theme of Brendan Foster's company, ViewFrom, and its cosy relationship with the Beeb (there exists a pic of the entire OB crew in ViewFrom tracksuits).

Fact; British athletics is Not Very Good. Some decent results in European Cups, Europa Cups in the mid-1990s disguised the fact that even if we were fourth of fifth best nation in the world, this disguised an abyss in quality between us and the US, us and the USSR or Russia. But as the results get worse, the more running, jumping and standing still is thrown at us by the Beeb. In the last decade or so, only Paula Radcliffe among British athletes has been provably pre-eminent (I won't attempt to describe the raised eyebrows among my running set at the triumphs of Christie and Holmes, and besides I know the laws of libel too well).

And yet not a hand is raised in protest at the heats of the 3000m steeplechase or the women's 200m beamed to us from Berlin or Santiago or Kiev or Pasadena. A foreigner would assume that the amount of coverage the sport gets on British TV was the result of some transfiguring triumph, akin to that which Graf and Becker's astounding ascents blanketed German channels ZDF and ARD with tennis in the late 1980s. But Asafa Powell was not born in Pontefract. and Haile Gebreselassie is not a Glaswegian.

We may moan at the inconsequentiality of the early rounds of Wimbledon's eliminators; but this trivia occurs but once a year, whereas contingent track-and-field seems all-pervasive.

Athletics at its best is great telly. Who's gonna run fastest, throw furthest, jump highest? Fabulously elemental. Nobody who saw Lilian Board (RIP) chase down France's Colette Besson (ditto) in a 4x400 relay in 1969, or the madcap finale of the 1976 Olympic men's 5000m is ever likely to forget these moments. Hemery, Juantorena, Coe, Ovett, Mota, Yifter, Fosbury, Bubka, Zelezny were individuals who brought gasps; Fanny Blankers-Koen was as much a heroine in the London of 1948 as in her native Holland. but so much of today's footage is necessarily insignificant, is it any wonder that yawning adolescent fatties reach for the PS2?

That elemental nature is also, indirectly, track and field's televisual Achilles heel. Most sport needs, au fond, no commentary; athletics, by that very elemental nature, least of all. But, perversely, the BBC's gratingly soundalike rabbiters Stuart Storey and Paul Dickinson never, ever, ever shut up. Shot putter getting 'in the zone'? Rabbit. Trainers double-laced prior to a 400m semi final? Rabbit. Steve Backley's missus in the crowd? Rabbit.

It sticks in the craw to diss the deceased, but the supposedly sainted Ron Pickering started all this, decades ago; Ron would simply not button it, even if the athletes he was commenting on were merely taking their tracksuit bottoms off ('you can just sense she's back where she belongs, after that 13th place at Gateshead'). The insecurity was feelable - if I keep talking, I won't feel like a fraud. Pickering was a fundamentally decent and hardworking man who did a lot for his sport, but (We Are The Champions aside) he was a TV disaster area, and it is about time someone said so.

One shudders in contemplating his heirs. Foster's contributions to distance races are clumsy, slurred and often wildly off-beam - if someone has 'gone off at a suicidal pace' (or 'gn'off a'soo'seyd'l peace' in Geordie demotic) in a marathon, bet on him or her to win. The BBC packs its uncritical 'team' with so many comfortably grinning yea-sayers it makes Football Focus look like Jackass; Sally Gunnell's syntax surely can't hold out much longer, and Colin Jackson is obviously engaged in a one-man war with Little Britain's Dafydd for Wales' Campest Man. The 'team' is on ,er, first-name terms with everyone, always has been, since Jackson and Gunnell were Col and Sal. Never is a negative syllable uttered, unless by the excellent, telegenic and ridiculously masculine Michael Johnson, who is not only a true athletic legend, but an articulate person aware enough of his worth to be unafraid of carping and has the butchest voice since Barry White went to the great heart-shaped waterbed in the sky. There is - maybe - hope for Steve Cram, who seems less of a cheerleader than his mates, but as an ally of the seemingly untouchable Foster, he needn't and probably won't bother about improving himself. One can at least give thanks for the retirement of David Coleman (another double, please, David!).

There are great athletes around. The timelapse-fast Powell; the relentless Bekele; the spidery gravity-defier Isinbayeva. Yet who talks of them in the playground as once Walker and Bayi and Viren were once discussed? Will today's athletes ever make it onto a set of Top Trumps? And yet because the sport receives such grotesquely distended coverage on the BBC - heats for major races are analoguous to training sessions for the likes of Arsenal before European Cup ties, and singularly unengaging as television or sport - fewer and fewer people will remember them as my generation sat back and savoured the heroes and heroines of 1976 and 1980 and 1984.

Yes, even Carl Lewis.

Memo to the Beeb; get it off. Now. Kick the Fosterist fixation.

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