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The Olympics on BBC1 - review

Rachel Cooke loves the TV coverage of the Games (one presenter excepted).

My deep love for the Olympics always takes me by surprise: this wasn’t, let me tell you, how it was supposed to be. I think of school sports day and want to weep. Sheffield was then redder than a baboon’s bottom, with the result that all had to have prizes. And so it was that when Sebastian Coe, our only famous former student, came to dish out the cups, I found myself receiving from his hand a certificate that celebrated that I’d come fifth in the 400m.

“How many runners were there?” he asked, as the applause rang out (the clapping did not cease for 20 minutes; it was like being at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party). “Er, five,” I said. Ten minutes later, we had to go through this humiliation all over again, when a disbelieving Coe compelled me to admit that I’d come eighth in the shot-put out of a field of, yes, eight.

With sudden love, though, there comes something else. Something darker. The more Olympics one watches – and I watched an awful lot; I have a carpet burn on my thigh, due to a heavy fall on the sprint between my desk and the television – the more the irritations grow. Occasionally, this tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.

When the BBC vowed that we would “never miss a moment” of London 2012, they didn’t inform us that many of these moments would
be delivered by the presenter John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, being so burnished, so strangely unyielding and always too squat for the space he is inhabiting.

Inverdale can make most things seem boring and usually does. Worse, he seems bored himself. On the second Monday of the Games, when things were not going too well for our athletics team, his conversations with Michael Johnson et al were gilded with a loathsome Partridge-like irritation, as if it were not Dai Greene and Holly Bleasdale who were having a bad day, but Inverdale himself. “The steam-roller seems to have hit a speed bump,” he said, as though he were at the wheel of a shiny new Prius and stuck in traffic on the M40.

Olympics Tonight, Gaby Logan’s chat show-cum-round-up, managed the rare feat of being both unmissable and unendurable. If you’d been out, you had to watch it. But no sooner had the theme music rolled than you felt like rending your garments.

This wasn’t wholly the distractingly well-groomed Logan’s fault – though as the days rolled by, I did find myself wondering each evening how she would top the outfit of the night before. No, she is super knowledgeable and one of the few people on this earth who is able to keep a conversation going with Amir Khan for more than 35 seconds. But, really. Whose idea was it to play Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” every night, while a famous sportsperson moved the arrow northwards on a Blue Peter-style “totaliser” in the shape of Big Ben? And why, at the sound of it, did Logan start with the disco arms as if she was on a hen night? No man would have done this. Sorry but they wouldn’t.

A few critics have had a go at Jake Humphrey, who presented from the velodrome and other places. I quite liked him. Basically, he had two jobs. One was to explain the omnium to people like me (sounds like a brand of waste-disposal unit). The other was to make Mark Cavendish, who sat beside him in the commentary box, feel better.

I don’t know if he was entirely successful when it came to Cav, though it’s just about possible that his references, made roughly every five minutes, to Cav’s failure to pick up a medal were the idea of the British cycling team’s psychologist. But when it came to the omnium, he had no less gravitas than Ian Thorpe who, I swear, told Gary Lineker one evening that in swimming events: “Look, there is water in every lane.”

Perhaps you’re wondering who I did like. The answer is: pretty much all the commentators. Why, I wonder, didn’t Logan et al have these experts – Garry Herbert and Dan Topolski at the rowing; Mitch Fenner and Christine Still at the gymnastics; Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter at the cycling – in their studios more often? These are the people who bring the Olympics alive and we love the sound of their voices, whispering and calm one minute, clanging with emotion the next.

Like everyone, I adored Clare Balding, too, a woman whose every utterance seemed a rebuke to a BBC that, in 2010, failed to renew her contract. Not only is Balding better prepared than any other BBC sports presenter (Gary Lineker, like our football team, was winging it and it showed; Sue Barker seemed strangely sleepy). She is also a lot less vain. Some people want to be on television for its own sake; it is being on TV that is important to them. Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it and the screeds of stats – and this sincerity puts everyone who comes within a six-mile radius of her at their ease. Medal winners, you may noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round. Now I really think about this, if Balding were to ask me about coming eighth in the shot-put, I might, even now, consider taking it up again. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism