Olympic Grandstand

Tuesday, September 19, 2000 by

For most of us, the Olympic marathon refers not to athletes running 26 miles around Sydney, but the almost continuous coverage that’s going to be offered up by BBC Television over the next fortnight. With the games taking place on the other side of the world, and tickets being scarce, it’s probably the only way the vast majority of us are going to see any sport from Australia at all. When sporting events such as this happen far away, it inevitably leads to some challenges for the production team. Previous events in Europe, such as the 1992 Barcelona games, were relatively easy for the BBC to cover, as the big events took place at times that were convenient for the viewers, and so when they were transmitted live, they were able to pick up large audiences.

However, the 10-hour time difference between the UK and Australia causes problems – most of the big events take place throughout the morning, when less people can get to a TV set. Therefore, the BBC have to strike a balance between live coverage for a very small audience, and a decent highlights package to allow the largest possible audience to see the big events. However, they can’t repeat the action over and over again, to avoid boring those who watched the events live. They also have to juggle the smaller events which the majority has little interest in but which are just as much a part of the games, and, of course, the normal BBC schedule.

Some stations would balk at this sort of responsibility, and indeed NBC in the US aren’t showing any live action from the games at all – as the big events take place at US-unfriendly times, they’re concentrating all their efforts into highlights packages. The BBC, though, can’t afford to take this stance, and have therefore come up with an exhaustive timetable. What’s interesting is the chance to see where the BBC Sport on-screen personnel feature in the pecking order. So Steve Rider and Sue Barker, as the senior presenters, appear in the mornings, from 7am, so they can cover all the big events in front of a decent sized audience. The daytime in Sydney, when most of the other live action takes place, is in the early hours of the morning (9am in Sydney being 11pm in the UK), so Hazel Irvine is responsible for bringing the events to a tiny audience.

John Inverdale and Steve Cram have what could be the best job on the team – they introduce the highlights package at 7pm each evening, which offers the best of the sport from the last 24 hours and the biggest audience of the day. They also have the job of presenting the coverage throughout the afternoon, which is one of the most curious parts of the schedule. When John and Steve start their shift at 1.45pm, it’s near midnight in Australia, and thus there’s little or no sport going on. The slot is therefore devoted to the events that occurred earlier in the day, but there was no time to cover – even with two channels at their disposal, it’s very hard to feature, say, live table tennis or judo when there’s swimming and athletics going on at the same time.

Tuesday was a good example, when Invers and Crammy (which is how we already know them) offered us an afternoon of boxing, weightlifting, badminton, beach volleyball, and sailing. None of these sports are likely to get a massive audience – excepting, perhaps, the beach volleyball – and there’s little chance of a medal for British competitors, but there are people who would like to see them. It’s no wonder that John started his stint on Monday afternoon by saying “You may not like handball at the moment, but you’ll be a fan before you know it”. Invers and Crammy are very good at admitting the events are obscure, but without belittling them – so often coverage is preceeded by short “Grandstand Guides”, useful explanations of the rules and who’s involved.

There’s a sort of laid-back feel to the whole afternoon, with John and Steve sparking off each other well – we can sympathise with the fact that it’s the middle of the night for them and they’re trying to get us excited over an afternoon of taekwondo. So e-mails are invited, with John saying that perhaps “students, if you’ve had your one lecture of the day” would like to get in touch. Steve asks for any comments on the low quality of John’s clothing. Later, an e-mail asked why so many swimming records were being broken in the games – Steve pledged to find out, but insisted that “it’s not because the pool goes downhill”.

John has been hyped as being “The new Des Lynam”, and indeed he has the same sort of affability, but he also seems to be cultivating a sort of buffoonish image – he’ll have trouble reading some results and Steve will step in to help out, or he’ll do a really bad pun and Steve will groan. Steve’s actually been more professional than you’d perhaps expect – the days linking boring athletics meets on Channel 4 have helped him immensely, and he can get over a lot of information with the minimum of fuss. It’s not hard to see The Invers And Crammy Show being the hit of the games, although later in the week Steve has to go and commentate on the athletics, and Clare Balding will be John’s new sidekick. Whether this will be as successful is hard to tell, but John certainly won’t do his TV career any harm with his display at these games.

You can make comparisons with the Winter Olympics in 1998, where Ray Stubbs and Jane Hoffen introduced the overnight coverage. This was anchored from London, and evident was the same laid-back style with the feeling they should be in bed and only a few thousand people were watching – especially when Ray and Jane found themselves introducing hours of curling each night. But again the enthusiasm for the games and the nicely targeted coverage meant that there was a loyal audience by the end.

The Olympic Games are always excellent fun, not just for the undoubted excellence of the competitors and the quality of the action, but also the range of sport that takes place. The BBC deserves praise for the depth and the range of it’s coverage – for a fortnight, weightlifting is not the poor relation of football and athletics, it’s covered with enthusiasm and respect by the production team and a medal winner in this event is heralded as a great athlete. The Olympics are still unique in this idea, and in broadcasting terms, so, it seems, are the BBC.


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