Olympics and Paralympics on television: a small niggle

Like everyone else, I had fun with the Olympics. I loved what I saw close-up and I watched the coverage.

Different mediums, different lessons. I learnt that womens’ basketball is more exciting than the better-known, big-money mens’ version because female players aren’t tall and strong enough to make long, lone runs to score and must play it as a passing, team game. That makes it mediocre television but a terrific live sport. I learnt that synchronised swimming, if you’re watching it live from near the roof of the Aquatic Centre, is well-nigh incomprehensible; thank heaven for underwater cameras and big screens. Like millions, I thought Clare Balding and Ian Thorpe were an inspired pairing. And I watched in the roaring stadium as Richard Whitehead won the Paralympic mens’ 200m.

But I’ve got one small, niggling reservation which won’t quite go away. The BBC is our public service broadcaster and that should include setting standards for others. On many levels, the BBC did that in the London Olympics. The weight of sporting expertise assembled to comment on everything was mighty.

But the vast majority of that commentary was about effort and emotion. The set-piece films about individual athletes, made in advance and played endlessly, were all about preparation, dedication and previous disappointment or triumph. These are all part of the story. But only part. Remarkably little of the hour upon hour of “analysis” was actually devoted to explaining what was happening and why – beyond commenting on what was visible. How do you pace a 100m hurdle race at Olympic level? How to do you measure acceleration and deceleration in rowing? How does a judge split the performances in gymnastics?

People who perform at extraordinary levels – athletes and actors, for example – are often very poor at explaining how they do what they do, the cause and effect of success or failure. Why should they be? Their special skill lies elsewhere. The one commentator smart enough to be the exception proving the rule was the BBC’s Michael Johnson, who is not only a four-times gold medallist but a very smart man who actually thinks about what the audience might need to know. When he was speaking, you were learning. His fellow pundits didn’t get it.

This is hydroponic television: stuff produced without nutrients, without roots, information without depth or hinterland. So what, you might say: television just relays immediacy and drama.

But that defence doesn’t do for these reasons. Someone, somewhere in the BBC thought they had a problem with this. Midway through the athletics coverage, Colin Jackson began doing a series of short previews which actually did explain the tactics and inner mechanisms of races. But it had the feeling of being assembled in a hurry and Jackson is really not the best front-man for this. The BBC is superb at explication when it remembers that this is part of its brief even if its not the duty of any other broadcaster. And the last reason is that the information I was often looking for was there, buried deep down in the 2012 BBC website (archery example here). A minimum help might just have been to refer people to it. Even better would have been to make it good television. Amid the fervour and the fireworks, the mission to explain went missing.




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