The Media Column: 'The BBC's Olympic coverage has been far from medal-worthy'

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The Independent Online

Many members of the team under-performed - let us down, you might say. Not quite what you expect from highly paid professionals with the nation watching their every move or listening intently as they shed their blood, sweat and tears.

Many members of the team under-performed - let us down, you might say. Not quite what you expect from highly paid professionals with the nation watching their every move or listening intently as they shed their blood, sweat and tears.

No, I don't mean our athletes in Athens, silly. I am talking about those among the 400-strong BBC squad at the Olympic Games who, far from winning gold medals for their work, would have been over-compensated had they each brought home a wooden spoon.

It is not long since an experienced broadcaster of my acquaintance griped to me about what he saw as the BBC's policy of employing "experts" rather than journalists to cover sport. Despite the authoritative contributions of the American Michael Johnson (his on-air scepticism about Darren Campbell's torn hamstring displayed the instincts of a born reporter), Athens largely substantiated my friend's view that most former sports stars possess as much journalistic nous as hardened hacks display athletic ability.

Steve Cram, Brendan Foster and the rest of the BBC's team of ex-champions often made me wince as they treated the competition as sacred and the British competitors as gods whose reputation must remain undefiled. The Paula Radcliffe affair alone demonstrated just how inadequate, prejudiced and downright embarrassing can be those former gamekeepers who join ranks with the poachers hunting the truth behind the statistics.

Foster, like Cram a close friend of Britain's marathon world record holder, continually suggested during the race that the eventual winner, the Japanese runner Mizuki Noguchi, was "tying up", had "lost her rhythm" and was displaying her distress by continually looking at her watch. Even the least athletically educated of us suspected she was just checking her pace against the distance markers. If that was what Noguchi can do tied up, unknotted she must be faster than a greyhound.

When the humbled Paula eventually emerged to be interviewed, a sycophantic Cram seemed unaware that this was a great news story and proceeded to offer excuses for the British runner's abject failure. Distressed as she was, the very bright Ms Radcliffe felt it necessary to point out that while the temperature and terrain may have proved her undoing, her competitors had endured the same conditions.

Sadly, servility, superiority and the liberal dispensing of clichés were not exclusive to those who themselves had experienced "the cauldron of Olympic competition" (sorry, it must be catching). On Radio Five Live, John Rawling refuted criticism of Radcliffe with a pompous explanation that employed the phrase "the bottom line" more times than the runner had stopped and started as she swayed towards a seat in the gutter. The bottom line, huffed Rawling, was that on the day there were athletes who were better, and the bottom line was that she was beaten. That was the bottom line. What rubbish. The bottom line was that a professional athlete who commands vast amounts of money to race had, to mix a sporting metaphor, quit on her stool - and her supporters at home wanted to know why.

Full marks, then, to Radio Five Live's afternoon presenter Jane Garvey, who later interrupted criticism of Radcliffe's inquisitors at her press conference to observe that, in the circumstances, such questions were wholly justified.

Brian Viner, writing in this newspaper, has already highlighted the lack of impartiality that made much of the commentating memorable for all the wrong reasons. Gold medallists were relegated to interview-fodder for the only mildly inquisitive Sally Gunnell, while British also-rans were lauded for simply turning up.

Gary Herbert's near-hysteria during the rowing probably acted as encouragement for Britain's coxless four to increase their stroke rate, if only to put more clear water between their boat and his voice. But even Herbert's fervour could not match that of the commentator who had to be winched down from the ceiling at the end of a table tennis match in which there hadn't even been a British competitor.

A final thought about the gallant 400 that the BBC sent to Athens. I have no quarrel with the producers and directors, the cameramen and sound technicians, even the runners and Steve Riders (a proper pro) who have contributed to 1,250 hours of Olympics coverage. Nor do I begrudge director general Mark Thompson his trip to Greece. It's hard work, but someone has to do it.

But listening to Five Live's Victoria Derbyshire chairing a phone-in debate on education from an Athens hotel room vindicated anyone who has ever felt the licence fee could be more wisely spent. On a few more journalists, perhaps.