Thursday, 30 July 2009

Athletic Endeavour

In my recent fevered state, I’ve been doing a lot of laying on the sofa with a blanket pulled up to my nose. Barely able to move my calcified limbs, I have harnessed the power of Sky Plus, and spent most of the day watching sport.

I’ve been closely following the World Swimming Championships, and the heated debate over polyurethane outfits – good for breaking world records, bad for grumpy old former world record holders in the studio. So bored have I been, that I have sat through the interminable morning heats. In, say, the Men’s 200m Freestyle, there are thirteen heats, the last three of which are seeded, meaning that, in practical terms, the qualifiers will come exclusively from those heats. The ten previous heats, therefore, are almost laughable. Until you have seen the national champions of Mauritius and Burkina Faso go head to head, you have not know futility.

More interesting, though, was the athletics from Monaco on Eurosport last night. As with any sporting event in the principality, there were frequent shots of the royal family enjoying the action from their gilded box; and the more recent phenomenon of Jenson Button’s dad. The F1 driver lives in Monte Carlo so had turned up to watch a bit of real sport, and right beside him, there was his ubiquitous old man, revelling in the usual permatan and pink shirt – untucked and unbuttoned to the navel.

Eurosport’s coverage of just about anything is woefully amateurish when compared to that of the better-funded broadcasters, but they often cover events that even Sky wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. For example, they are the only place to go for swimming heats, any cycling event that is not the Olympics, or North American Timbersports (seriously, don’t knock it till you’ve seen it.) However, it was a surprise that they were the only network that could be bothered to cover a major Athletics Grand Prix meeting.

The Eurosport modus operandi is to carry live feed from a host broadcaster, and to grab two relatively sober and articulate people from each country, put them in a booth in their respective homeland, and ask them to commentate on what they are seeing. The result can sometimes be ham fisted when you realise that the commentators has no additional information to you the viewer, and is basically watching the same feed that you are.

Their amateurish state was best summed up during the Tour de France, when viewers were invited to email the commentary team. The email address given out was something like I can imagine one of the commentary lads getting on Yahoo and setting it up for themselves that morning, rather than having anything as professional as a domain name.

Back to athletics, and one of the advantages of Eurosport is that, because they don’t have any presenters on-site, they actually cover the field events. This may sound silly but think about the last BBC-covered athletics meeting you saw. After each race they cut back up to the stands to listen to what that grinning gobshite Colin Jackson has to say about it, then cut to a pre-recorded interview with yet another British contender. Only when the next race is about to go do they cut back to the action.

On Eurosport they don’t have that dubious luxury, and so the cameras stay on the field events. If you’ve ever attended an athletics meeting in the flesh, you’ll know that there is always something going on in the arena. I went to last year’s Olympic Trials and had a great time, even without Brendan Foster mispronouncing names and bemoaning the state of British men’s middle distance running.

So, from Monaco, I enjoyed the men’s Pole Vault and a spectacular women’s High Jump. Neither event would have been carried live by the BBC, because neither involved a British person. The High Jump in particular was a high quality head to head between Blanka Vlasic and Ariane Friedrich.

Vlasic is a kind of weird-looking Amazon of a woman, but really knows how to play a crowd, and can jump over a plastic bar better than anybody else. Believe it or not, I used to be quite the high jumper in my youth – I was a sixteen-year-old North of England Schools Champion as it happens.

I know you are probably thinking I’m a bit short and stocky (alright, fat) to be much of a high jumper, and you’d be right, if a little insensitive. But I reached the full majesty of my five foot nine at an early age and, for a few all too brief pubescent years, towered above my contemporaries. Also, my relationship with the pie and the pint were not as abusive back then, so my slender build remained.

Actually, what I am thinking right now, is that I can’t believe I’ve written over 160 blogs and not yet managed to brag about my schoolboy athletics medals.

I eventually gave up the High Jump as I found it to be too much of an existential challenge. After all, there may be something inspirational about continually raising the bar, challenging yourself even further with every leap. But even when I won competitions, the bar would be inexorably raised to a point beyond my ability. Every competition therefore ended in failure. Three times.

I started to lose interest in the element of competition, the other jumpers were of no consequence to me, only the inevitable failure that would signify the end of my event, and the limit of my endeavour. No matter how successful I was in the early rounds, the end loomed, hanging over me and weighing me down.

I don’t know. Maybe I was reading too much into it. But I was an odd kid.

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