The heart and the head..the difficult balance of sports commentary

How does the sports commentator maintain his or her equilibrium and avoid the dreaded accusation that he or she is merely a ‘cheerleader’ for one team or the other?

One of the more interesting aspects to occur in the wash-up at the end of the Men’s State Of Origin decider on Sunday night was the reaction to Phil Gould’s alleged bias towards New South Wales in the commentary box. Social media went crazy, as is almost expected these days … ‘That’s a penalty try, that’s a penalty try, that’s a penalty try…’ mimicked one faceless critic on Twitter.

How does the sports commentator – the professional whose job it is to convey the drama, to read a script on the fly, maintain his or her equilibrium and avoid the dreaded accusation that he or she is merely a ‘cheerleader’ for one team or the other? There’s a very fine line between maintaining objectivity and accuracy, and also between conveying the passion needed to really get inside an event to capture the drama. The commentator’s job is to try not to cross that line.

I think one of the key appeals in following sport is the amount of emotion that you can and are even expected to spend on it. While the day-to-day details of life might seem endless and repetitive, the unpredictability and drama of sport can be anything but. In the realm of broadcasting, it’s the unscripted element that marks sport as unique. It has the power to create magic.

In the realm of broadcasting, it’s the unscripted element that marks sport as unique. It has the power to create magic.

In a perfect broadcasting world you’re meant to allocate your time equally and fairly and keep your opinions and allegiances to yourself. Fair enough, but when you are engrossed in the theatre of sport, you have a microphone in hand and only the sporting gods know what is going to happen next, sometimes you just have to let yourself go and live in the moment. The commentator’s job is to paint a picture and tell a story for your audience. If it’s your day you might just create something memorable.

When Neal Brooks hit the last 20 metres of the 4 by 100 metre medley relay at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, objectivity went out the window and brilliant radio was the result. ‘It’s 5 metres to go for Australia, 4, 3, 2, 1… gold, gold to Australia, gold!’ cried Norman (Nugget) May as Australia touched the wall ahead of the USSR for its first Olympic gold medal in eight years. It was hardly balanced commentary but it was vivid and certainly memorable. It’s not a stretch to describe it as the most famous piece of commentary in Australian sports history. Norman’s consummate skill as a commentator was such that if the Russians had touched the wall first he’d have found a way to keep his words balanced.

When Cathy Freeman lined up at the start of the 400 metre final at the Sydney Olympics, the Games had reached their emotional and dramatic epicentre. It seemed that the entire country, more or less, was either watching or listening to the race. High in the stands Tim Lane was at the microphone for ABC Grandstand. What followed was 60 seconds of athletic perfection from Cathy and a race call of equal perfection from Tim, who dealt out emotion, drama and accuracy in equal measure. ‘Cathy’s the winner, Australia the winner, Cathy Freeman is a national hero,’ was the call as Freeman crossed the line first. Such a description might not pass any objectivity test but it stands up beautifully as an example of masterful broadcasting.

To complete a trilogy of great ABC sports commentary moments we can turn to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. At the equestrian centre Australia suddenly found itself in with a good chance to win. Matt Ryan riding Kibah Tic Toc needed to ride a clear round in his show jumping  to take the gold medal. At short notice the ABC needed someone to call the ride. In stepped George Grljusich from Western Australia. With no particular background in equestrian or any knowledge of the show jump arena he quickly sketched a diagram of the course on a scrap of paper, then brought the event to life in a masterful piece of sports commentary. ‘Over at one, clear at two,’ he cried as the airwaves cracked with tension and a nation stopped and listened. Although knocking a couple of fences Ryan and Kibah Tic Toc did well enough on the round to win the gold. It was the very essence of a magic moment and I’m not sure that it passed too many objectivity tests either. To this day it’s held up in the ABC sports department as a classic example of intuitive and improvised sports commentary.

To this day it’s held up in the ABC sports department as a classic example of intuitive and improvised sports commentary.

In Around the Grounds I describe my own personal connections with these incredible moments and the broadcasters who brought them to life. I also write about my admiration for the master soccer commentator Martin Tyler whose work I have again been enjoying during these World Cup finals.

When I went to New York and Boston in 1994 to discover the magic of the World Cup for myself, I was profoundly disappointed by the US soccer commentators. The standards were way short of the likes of Martin Tyler and the ABC Grandstand team. As an antidote to this problem I turned to commentary on the Spanish language network. Never has anything so unintelligible been so entertaining. When the ball went into the net the cry of ‘Goaaaaaaaaaaal!’ spoke a hundred different languages. The objectivity factor was zero.

When it comes to top sport it’s very hard to keep the heart separated from the head, so let’s cut Gus Gould a bit of slack for showing his enthusiasm. Now for his commentary in the Women’s State of Origin game, well, maybe that’s for another blog.

No Comments

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: