Posted by: tootingtrumpet | January 12, 2011

The Language of Sport

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.


  1. Can I just say that that was an absolutely fabulous race call, and I hate horse racing.

  2. Yet to watch/listen to that youtube link, but want to convey my appreciation for the post, Toots.

    Most middle class youngsters in South India, born in the 1960s and 70s, would have grown up reading the sports pages in The Hindu. The standards in The Hindu’s sports pages have come down, but it is not an exaggeration to say that one of the factors in my love for language is due to those reports. I remember Nirmal Shekhar’s poetic reports on Tennis, and for marquee tournaments like Wimbledon etc, the previews and match reports ( Jimmy Connors’ come from behind win against Pernfors merited an almost 1000 word lyrical description) used to make my day. Similarly Thyagarajan’s coverage of the Olympics and the various hockey tournaments. Rajan Bala and R.Mohan used to do the same for Cricket.

    My first memories of the radio commentary was the live coverage of the 1983 World Cup on BBC.Sadly, Indian commentators on All India Radio were never really good, and within a year or two, we started watching Cricket on TV. The commentary team on Channel 9 astounded us during the B&H tournament in 1984-85, and in comparison, the Indian telecast and the commentary teams looked very sub-standard. Things have improved a lot in recent years, but Sunil Gavaskar, who used to be very good when he started out, lost his spark some what.Manjrekar’s good observations are marred by a paucity of vocabulary.Ravi Shastri & Sivaramakrishnan bring down the standard even further. Our Hyderabadi boy Harsha Bhogle has made it big, but of late even he is sounding very cliched.

    Looking forward to links to be shared by other readers. This is one of my favorite topics.

    • Kumar – it must be tough, especially with the volume of cricket played, for Indian commentators to avoid becoming cliched at times. But that’s part of the job I suppose.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. For me my earliest memories are Brian Johnston on TMS and I always enjoyed his commentaries enormously.

  4. Richie Benaud is the most respected commentator and cricketer on the Australian continent. I’m sure everyone that reads this blog is well aware of Mr Benaud’s wonderfully understated persona and choice of words.

    But I doubt that many have seen him angry. Here is a clip at the conclusion of the infamous underarm ODI at the MCG. A very sad day for Australian cricket and one that Greg Chappell should be held accountable for as long as he breathes.

    • Not mincing words!

      • Even when he is angry he is composed.

        He is probably one of the most respected commentators in the UK as well, he got a standing ovation at Lord’s after his last ever commentary on UK Tele, they announced it during the match after he finished his stint.

        I can imagine that happening for anybody else.

        It was widely regarded to have cost Ian Bell his wicket, but thats another story.

  5. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event last night with many a laugh, and as toots said the odd point worth talking about. For me an interesting one was what we should expect of sportspeople in interviews. I’ve long thought that as we don’t mock Steven Fry for not being able to curl a free kick around a wall, why should we expect Wayne Rooney to be able to wax lyrical about his game?

    The point was also made that when a footballer says “the ball’s came to me and I’ve hit it and it’s gone in the back of the net” it’s pretty much because that’s how he saw it. When you’re taking a slip catch you don’t really have time to analyse what’s going on, you just stick your hand out and gobble it up, and there’s often nothing more to the actual event than that.

    As for commentators, Bill McLaren and Ian Robertson are two of my favourite of all time. Bill McLaren was the voice of rugby in the uk for many years, and below is the clip they played at the event last night. He was renowned for his similes, but also had an encyclopaedic knowledge and unbounded love of the game:

    Ian Robertson is the radio equivalent with a not-dissimilar Scottish brogue and has one of the most iconic pieces of radio commentary in this country, but I’ll not link it on this blog for two reasons. Firstly, it was the Rugby World Cup Final winning drop goal so would probably not be quite so popular for a lot of readers, but much more importantly I can’t find it anywhere at this particular moment.

    • All the 2003 World Cup stuff is ferociously guarded by copyright, I understand. Great to see you last night and thanks for the clip.

  6. The premier Gaelic games commentator for the last six decades was – recently retired – a radio commentator called Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh (Mee-hall Oh Murr-ih-her-tig). There’s a whole legend built up around his quirky sayings ( such as “Teddy McCarthy to John McCarthy, no relation, John McCarthy back to Teddy McCarthy, still no relation”, which is nice, but to me his great virtue was that he would always commentate on the game at hand and leave the editorialising to others. He likes cricket as well! (

  7. Since Gaelic footy has got a run (thanks Deiseach) it would be remiss not to mention the doyen of Australian Rules commentators Denis Cometti. Denis joined the ABC in Perth at 17 and also played and coached at the professional level.

    He has developed a reputation where the word Comettiisms has joined the Australian vernacular and he is by far the wittiest and most intelligent of all football commentators.

    My favourite was during a Hawthorn game where he said, “Ball to Barker to Barlow – The Hawks are attacking alphabetically”

    Another was describing Melbourne’s Adam Yze, “He’s a terrific player but a terrible scrabble hand”.

    Rarely does a match go by without a gem you’ve never heard before. On You Tube I could only find;

    The Strip-o-Gram

    The NFI (No Fucken Idea)

    Barack Obama

    • That’s a great earthy voice – what we expect of Aussies!

      • Excellent thread, wish l had more time to contribute. Great to see Cometti here Nesta.

        A great call can really enhance a moment – l’m quite fond of Gerard Whateley’s ABC call of the 2009 Geelong premiership, particularly at the end. A great caller who just happens to barrack for Geelong!

  8. Gary,
    I share your general disagreement with broadcasters today, but I think it is too much to expect color commentators employed by a public broadcaster (BBC, ITV) and those hired by a cable news channel (ESPN, SKY, TEN, NEO etc.) – they have different compulsions and they cater to different audiences. The latter targets the lowest common denominator, while the latter has no such compulsion. In the latter, the color commentator is supposed to peddle the action, while in the former, the color commentator is supposed to reflect on it.

    So in some ways, the comparison isn’t fair. Some commentators started out in the former set up and are now in the latter – Bill Lawry and Richie Benaud come to mind, but for someone who has no concept of commentary outside Cable TV, I think the conditions are pretty much formed before he (and never she) takes his seat.

    • I take your point, but Pay TV Sky are much better than Free-to-air BBC ever were and do call the cricket as they see it. They leave the cheerleading to the football commentators.

  9. Not helped by sports stars often being young, inarticulate and wary and an audience prone to revelling in hyperbolae
    I wish!

    • Indeed David – a conic section if I remember correctly?

      In its metaphorical sense, I think it does mean lack of perspective (ie hype).

      • The hyperbole you’re talking about doesn’t have an ‘a’ in it. ;) The words ‘hyperbola’ and ‘hyperbole’ are different, though both are based on the same Greek word (ὑπερβολή, excess).

        • David! Is there anything you don’t know? Thanks for that – I shan’t correct it, as the error leads to something much more interesting than the point I would have made had I got it right the first time!!

          • Well I had to look up the etymology (years of maths study means that I can sound out Greek words though…), though I knew the difference between hyperbola and hyperbole.

            I’m pretty sure Nesta knows more words than I do – every now and then he’ll throw out some 6-syllable word that I’ll have never heard or seen before.

            • That’s just to keep you on your toes Dave.

              Today I wrote an article for the local music rag and used the word autoschediastical to describe a band that plays a fusion of jazz and funk. In a cricketing context it could also be applied to Tillakaratne Dilshan’s batting.

              Coincidentally, I think it may be of Greek origin too.

  10. Since we’re on the subject of great sports commentators, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell. You could fill a book with the best of his quotes, but here’s my favourite:

    “When Alexander of Macedon was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Eric Bristow is only 27.”

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