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27 February 2019

Sporting Witness: a sports history programme that moves blithely between archive, interview and conversation

Episodes cover everything from the beginnings of downhill skiing to the invention of the sports bra.

By Antonia Quirke

The problems with the two-star-rated BBC Sounds app rumble on. Complaints range from, “Why do I have to pick at that tiny little sliding bar to move forward and back?” to a rage-condensed, “This is really quite annoying.” But there are higher hopes for the new World Service English app, created to access news and radio programmes in 35 countries outside the UK “where mobile data is expensive or internet coverage limited”. The success of the World Service was the one bit of good news in the latest Rajar figures – an increase in the tough weekly UK audience: 1.55 million, up from 1.51 million last year (globally, the WS’s reach is upwards of a head-lolling 279 million).

I often marvel at the finely calibrated tone of the English language content. Clarity is ever the keynote (there’s always a slightly clunking checking-everybody-is-on-the-same-page moment in programmes) but otherwise, so much isn’t remotely overdetermined, certainly in terms of formatting. Take Sporting Witness, a sports history programme that moves blithely between archive, interview and conversation to tell a story. “A jockstrap, if you’re unfamiliar with the term,” checked presenter Rebecca Kesby with a twinkle, “is a piece of supportive underwear worn by men.”

Seconds later, the American interviewee Lisa Lindahl recalled how she invented the sports bra in 1977 after a friend’s husband came downstairs to breakfast wearing a jockstrap on his head, which she then put on hers and eased it down to her bosom (some breakfast). An episode about the invention of downhill skiing by the British in the early 1900s used archive so well cleaned-up it sounded, bar the antique locutions, like it had been recorded yesterday.

Just occasionally that WS briskness can make for oversimplifications. “Of course, skiing had existed before this time,” rattled presenter Simon Watts, “but that had been mostly Scandinavian, for hunting trips.” I thought mournfully of Nobel peace laureate Fridtjof Nansen, crossing Greenland’s unmapped ice cap in 1888 on skis and with trusty bamboo ski poles in the name of science, carrying five litres of drinking chocolate and the notes for his mind-blowing 1893 travelogue Eskimo Life… but, hey. 

Sporting Witness
BBC World Service

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics