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In praise of Clare Balding and her highlighter pen

Her talent for combining really nerdy detail with great empathy is irresistible.

I’m by no means the first to enthuse about Clare Balding’s stellar presenting of the Olympics swimming coverage. Twitter has been bubbling with support for her for days now, the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage notes that her popularity has now gone trans-Atlantic, and she's even received the unlikely accolade of a supportive Jan Moir oped in the Mail.

While they are right in saying that Balding is witty, empathetic and charming to viewers and interviewees alike, that’s not why I’m so mad about her. For me, it’s all about the yellow highlighter she wields. She broadcasts from the BBC’s perch high up in the Aquatics Centre, a mass of printed-out results before her, with the interesting stories clearly marked out by bold neon lines. She deploys knowledge and expertise in a firm but friendly manner – never overwhelming you with statistics, but always telling you things you didn’t already know.

Even watching the Olympics on television can be a bit of a breathless experience – one second you’re watching judo, then some breaking news from the handball comes in, then it’s over to Wimbledon for a crucial match point, then off to the Aquatics Centre... The onslaught of information for presenters to try and digest must be never-ending. Because of this, a presenter who isn’t afraid to show her workings and dig down into the stats, highlighter in hand, between pieces to camera is infinitely more impressive than one who concentrates completely on keeping the presentation smooth and just utters vague generalities about what may or may not be going on.

Henry “Blowers” Blofled, stalwart of Radio 4 LW’s Test Match Special, has a small but devoted following for the same reason that we are now all falling in love with Balding. When it comes to sport, there’s really no substitute for really nerdy detail, eloquently slotted into the bigger narrative. And of course, Balding’s got the gift of amazing empathy too – look no further than this interview with South African swimmer Chad Le Clos’s father Bert for an example:

Part of the brilliance of Balding’s appearances has been her easy onscreen chemistry with Mark Foster, the retired Olympic swimmer and veteran of five Games who is co-anchoring the BBC’s coverage with her. Foster is similarly charming, but he naturally sees everything through the prism of his own swimming career, meaning that we appreciate Balding’s fearsome grasp of the overall picture all the more. While Gary Lineker, Ian Thorpe, Sue Barker and the rest of the athletes-turned-commentators are all great, we can’t do without the likes of Clare. Long may she, and her higlighter, reign supreme.


Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.