02 September 2012

Tokyo calling ...

I'm old enough to just about remember the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. It was the first Olympics since communications satellites were invented, and so we could see live, or nearly live, coverage as Mary Rand, Ann Packer, Lynn "the leap" Davies, and Ken Matthews (who I have to say I'd completely forgotten) won a respectable-in-those-days 4 gold medals.

But the technology was pretty basic. As I remember, we saw an awful lot of people sitting and nattering in a studio far away from the action. Every so often they'd get hold of a bit of footage of a Brit winning something, and show that over and over again. Or we'd have a good laugh at the freaky ladymen sexually ambiguous shotputters from eastern Europe.

Channel 4's coverage of the London Parlympics has taken me back to those days, and it's not a good nostalgia. For most of the time, we have two presenters in a claustrophobic studio, usually with a guest, and they talk and talk about what we're not actually seeing. The games themselves might as well be on the other side of the world, there's so little engagement with them. We get occasional, context-free, clips of British athletes, but very little continuous or live coverage.This morning was an example. The rower Tom Aggar was competing in the final of the sculls, and apparently had a decent chance in it. In the event, he came fourth. C4 showed a short extract from the race about an hour after it had happened, packaged up with a short interview. Meanwhile someone on Twitter commented wryly that while a C4 commentator had described the long jump competition as thrilling, no-one watching would have known as they had only shown two jumps.

A few weeks ago, we saw that people could become enthusiastic about all kinds of sports if they were just given the time to get to know them and to follow the drama of the events. People became instant experts on synchronised diving and dancing horses because they could sit and watch and get drawn in, not because someone in a studio told them about it.

I know this is the biggest coverage the Paralympics has ever had, but in practice it's so depressing. I don't much like Channel 4 anyway - although it shows some excellent programmes, its personality is obnoxious - but these games were a chance to improve its image. Unfortunately, it's taken a fundamentally wrong direction, and I think the problem is this: it's presenting the games as a display of triumph over adversity, rather than as a top-grade sporting event. It's not trusting the sporting action to speak for itself, which is not just ruining viewers' enjoyment but is actually quite patronising to the athletes involved.

Don't ever take the BBC for granted!

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