Phelps fulminated over slack knees and judging incompetence across the board

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's always easier in a column like this to hand out critical kickings than it is to be genuinely enthusiastic. Sad but true (or maybe it's just me). But occasionally someone comes along who captures the essence of what sport on television should be about, someone who can tell you all the technical stuff you need to know while conveying the sheer thrill of the thing.

Step up on to the podium Brian Phelps, who, until Greg Louganis banged his bonce in Seoul, was the only diver anyone in this country had heard of (apologies to Liz Ferris, who also won Olympic bronze in Rome in 1960). His main claim to fame these days is as a football reference - "he's a better diver than Brian Phelps" - but he combines coaching with consummate commentating for Eurosport, and he has been in his pomp at the World Swimming Championships for the past 10 days.

As the women prepared for the 10-metre highboard, Phelps' mission to explain was underway (there are forwards, backwards, reverse, inward, twist and armstand groups, and seven judges; the highest and lowest marks are taken off and the average of the rest multiplied by the degree of difficulty; the platform is 16-18 feet long with a cork inlay 3/4in thick - so now you know). And on the dives themselves, it was like attending a masterclass. Take a random example: "Bad depth of pike in flight, tight hamstrings - she needs to do her mobility work - and very short on entry." Each dive was given a similarly crisp shakedown. After an hour, I felt I knew as much about diving as Phelps himself.

He combined the expertise of the coach and the enthusiasm of the fan, fulminating splendidly over the judging. When one woman was given a five, he was beside himself. "A five? Did one judge give her a five there? He did! I can't believe that. The Japanese judge must have been asleep, or he needs to de-steam his glasses. A five!" - he snorted - "It was not possible to give that dive a five." I pictured him standing up, gesturing obscenely at the judges and bellowing, "You're shit-aaaaaah!"

He was a bit happier with the next one up: "They've given her a good set of marks. Not what I would have given her. But there you are - I'm not judging" - this said with a note of regret. In fact, you got the feeling he'd like to be commentating, coaching, judging and diving, if only he could clone himself.

His obsession with the judges' perceived incompetence soared off the scale when Li Chen had her turn. "Slack knees on the take-off," he said, "but it was so high up, the judges probably missed it." One judge, however, gave her a 4.5. "Some weird judging going on here," Phelps said. "Maybe the New Zealand judge saw the slightly bent knees. He's freaking out a bit. You can't take off that many marks! Not for very slightly slack knees! I'm sure the Chinese coach will have something to say to that judge. I certainly would if it was my diver." I think he was planning to anyway.

I've never seen Jeremy Clarkson before, but he was preceded by a reputation as a bit of a wally. In fact, he came across as a big kid, which is exactly what a programme like Jeremy Clarkson's Extreme Machines (BBC2) needs (that prefix is a bit dodgy, though - shades of Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge, and the attendant notion that perhaps Clarkson's head is, as some critics have suggested, some way up his backside).

He was transported this week into the world of powerboat racing - which, he said, "has been likened to standing in the shower tearing up pounds 50 notes." The boats are, as he put it, "essentially flying machines." They do no more than skim the surface, and half the time ride on a cushion of air bubbles. Clarkson was given a guided tour of one big red monster with the cut of a Stealth bomber, owned by the Wimbledon FC-owning fish billionaires and driven by Brit Steve Curtis. "What's the number for?" he asked, pointing to a huge "10" on the underside. "It's for when the boys crash the boat so we know whose it is," replied Curtis, encouragingly.

Curtis's two world championships have done little to raise his profile from the z-list in his own land, but then it's not much of a spectator sport. Clarkson watched one boat go by in the middle distance, looked at his watch and said, "Never mind, in another 12 minutes it'll be back." There's no reason, though, why powerboat racing shouldn't work on the box, with its permanent sense of imminent catastrophe, something you just don't get from racing cars.

The principal thrill, of course, is handling the beasts, and Clarkson had a go: "This is incredible. The limit here is five miles per hour. The speedo shows 142. Now I've got to turn it. How often do you crash these things?"