I can’t recall any Olympic Games – come to that, any sporting occasion at all – at which the quality of the broadcast commentaries has prompted so much negative comment. National Radio’s Mediawatch devoted an item to it on Sunday, the blogosphere has apparently been even more excitable than usual, and Jane Clifton turned her attention to the subject in the Dominion Post this morning, skewering the commentators as only she can – deftly and without malice.
Amid all the condemnation, there are one or two positive points to be made about TV’s coverage of the Beijing Games. Most of all, we should be enormously thankful that the task of anchoring the TVNZ coverage fell by default to Peter Williams after the forced withdrawal of the disgraced Tony Veitch. I would have found Veitch’s brash, loudmouth manner unbearable. Williams’ style – affable, low-key and professional – is unfashionably old-school, but far better attuned to the audience likely to be watching the Games coverage.
After that it gets harder to find nice things to say. Sports reporters Craig Stanaway and Andrew Saville do a competent job, as do some of the comments people. But Peter Montgomery, as always, is too excitable and his punchlines are sometimes painfully laboured. Toni Street sounds like a West Auckland schoolgirl, but then so does almost every female TVNZ journalist; I think they put them through a finishing school somewhere near Henderson.
If the New Zealand commentators have a common fault, it's that their desire for New Zealand to do well clouds their objectivity. They insist on telling us our competitors are well placed or still in touch with the leaders even when it looks obvious to the viewers at home that they're not in the hunt.
But we shouldn’t heap all our derision on TVNZ. Whoever called the women’s 10,000-metre race for Newstalk ZB, which I heard in the middle of the night, seemed to think all that’s required of a radio commentator is periodically to bellow the name of whoever happens to be leading.
One thing in particular intrigues me. I keep hearing commentators say “Who’s going to ask the question?” This seems to be the phrase du jour among broadcasters at Beijing, especially when there’s a bunch of competitors biding their time and waiting for someone else to make a move. Frankly I’m less curious about who’s going to ask this mysterious question than what the question is. What’s the capital of Upper Volta, perhaps? How do you spell Popacatapetl? Can a soufflé rise twice?
I have my own theory about sports broadcasters and sports journalists. I suspect many of them are sports fans first, broadcasters or journalists second. They seek careers as sports broadcasters and journalists not so much because they want to tell great stories, which is what motivates good journalists, but because they are sports-heads who get a thrill out of being close to the action.
In my experience the best sports journalists are those who have solid experience reporting other sorts of stories and could, if called upon, write a political or crime story as convincingly as they could report a rugby test. They have drifted into sports journalism, sometimes by accident, and found a niche there where they are content. Those who report (or broadcast) sport primarily because they love sport, rather than the reporting of it, are more likely in my experience to be second-raters.
This is not to say that a journalist who has written about other things beside sport will always be a good sports reporter, or that one who has written only about sport will be an inferior one. But on the law of averages that's how it tends to work out.