I crave indulgence for a little digression er… beyond a boundary, to reflect on a panel held at the British Library comprising Martin Kelner, Eleanor Oldroyd, Harry Pearson, John Leigh and Andy Zaltzman held to discuss The Language of Sport.
There’s plenty of exceptions of course, but most sports journalists are somewhat complicit in its being called “The Toy Department” by the investigative reporters, the documentary photographers and the high-minded critics elsewhere in the newsroom. Not helped by sports stars often being young, inarticulate and wary and an audience prone to revelling in hyperbolae, the language of sport can appear to consist of a succession of stock cliches (“He’ll be disappointed with that”), charmless catchphrases (“The boy done good”) and toadying sponsored profiles (“Stuart Broad is a brand ambassador for Jaguar cars”). Need it be so? That was one of the questions addressed by an eminent panel of sports journos at The British Library last night.
There were plenty of the kind of laughs you always get when a group of like-minded enthusiasts gather and ask questions that begin, “Hey – do you remember that time when…?” but beneath the nostalgic anecdotes, some hard-edged points emerged.
While nobody would ever claim that the visual element of television sports coverage was better in the old days, almost everyone believes that its audio element was better back in the day. A couple of reasons were offered up by the panel: we always like the commentators we heard when we were young (same applies to music); and that the sheer volume of sport available means that its “event viewing” aspect is much diluted with the drama already diminished before the commentator opens his (or, very occasionally. her) mouth. Of course, there is something in that, but my view is that the recent trend of Big Names to progress seamlessly from the field of sporting combat to the commentary booth, has seen the replacement of professional, trained broadcasters with ex-players possessing neither the skills nor the experience to feel speech as not merely words, but music made by pitch, rhythm and pace. The great commentators (like the great writers) keep it simple, but infuse their speech with experience, love and perspective capturig not just the event, but the emotions of the event. Without getting overly psychoanalytical, the sports commentator has to understand their own emotional topography before they can convey emotions to us. Often barely into their forties and having lived a life sheltered by money and success, it’s no wonder the new generation of voices struggle to convey sport’s unscripted theatre in all its glory.
Making too much of the past? Well watch and listen. If you’re anything like me, shed a tear, as big, beautiful, brave Crisp is caught on the line by Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National and three commentators provide a masterclass in pitch, rhythm and pace, as they spend nine minutes repeating a list of horses’ names… unforgettably.
99.94 invites posters to name their favourite broadcasters and writers with links much appreciated.