Clare Balding: Queen of the screen

After an outstanding Olympic Games, is the BBC presenter's elevation to national treasure status complete?

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One of the more diverting sideshows at London 2012 has been the performances of the broadcasters. In fact, it is irresistible to consider theirs an Olympic pursuit to be measured like any other, in which respect some presenters have done gold-medal jobs, and some silver, with a few falling well shy of bronze.

Clare Balding has generally been up there in the gold class. The embodiment of versatility, authority and calmness under pressure, she did a particularly fine job in the aquatic centre with the overexcited father of South African swimmer Chad Le Clos, indulging his exhilaration while putting him at his ease, moments after his son had beaten Michael Phelps to an unexpected gold. On the other hand, if we are to put it in terms of her beloved equestrian events, she later incurred four faults by implying that swimmer Rebecca Adlington had failed by winning "only" a bronze medal in the 800m freestyle.

In truth, plenty of viewers felt much the same, as, at least initially, did Adlington herself. It is part of Balding's skill as a broadcaster that she articulates, better than most viewers could themselves, what they are thinking. But her tendency towards plain-speaking has got her into hot water before, notably when she told jockey Liam Treadwell, just after he had won the 2009 Grand National on the 100-1 shot Mon Mome, that he could now afford to go and get his teeth fixed.

It was more than a little insensitive, with such a glaring spotlight falling on him for the first time in his career, but it was perfectly true that as he opened his mouth we weren't fixated by his account of the race, but by the resemblance of his teeth to old gravestones. Moreover, the story had a happy ending, with Treadwell insisting that he hadn't been offended, and a cosmetic dentist offering to do the £30,000 job for free, although not before the inevitable calls, from the incontinent ranters who habitually besiege the BBC, for Balding's dismissal.

By then she had already apologised, and she was quick to say sorry, too, after the Adlington comment. She is perfectly placed to issue a speedy apology, being an inveterate user of Twitter, with more than 30,000 tweets to her name, and more than 225,000 followers. Before her Adlington faux pas, ironically, she had tweeted her outrage at comedian Frankie Boyle's own tweet, to the effect that Adlington took an unfair advantage into the pool being possessed of a dolphin's face.

Balding knows what it is like to be mocked, for both her looks and her sexuality. Having come out as a lesbian in 2003, in 2010 she complained to the Press Complaints Commission following TV critic A A Gill's description of her as a "dyke on a bike". The complaint was upheld, though it is worth noting what else Gill wrote about her in his Sunday Times TV review: "I warm to Clare as a presenter. Away from sport she has a comfortable, no-nonsense enthusiasm; when every other girl on television is winsome and coquettish, it's a relief to be talked to by someone who isn't flirting down the lens."

Last month, this was effectively echoed by Balding herself; indeed, she cited her sexuality as an asset in the world of sports presenting. "I have never been a flirt so it's not as if I would get giggly in an interview, but I guess I benefit from not having anyone think that I'm commenting about a male tennis player or rugby player for any other reason than their talent on the field of play," she said.

Maybe, maybe not. It's not as if her straight colleagues Sue Barker and Hazel Irvine appear to be distracted by the Lycra-enhanced contours of certain male athletes in these Olympic Games, but perhaps they're simply concealing their lust. Of more significance is Balding's place in the collective estimation. Her partner, the Radio 4 newsreader Alice Arnold, with whom she entered a civil partnership in 2006, is rather sweetly confident that Balding has national-treasure status, declaring via Twitter early on in the Olympics: "Lots of lovely tweets about @clarebalding1. I realise she belongs to the nation... but I am still dead proud of her, #thatsmygirl."

So, do we all think that Balding, like Nelson's Column, "belongs to the nation"? Certainly, as long ago as 1999, this newspaper described her as "a broadcaster of increasing assuredness, wit and charm, a Desdemona Lynam in the making. At BBC Sport, she is a rapidly appreciating asset in asset-stripping times".

She was 28 at the time, and her fondness for speaking her mind had already, more than once, got her into trouble with her employers. But they had discovered, I wrote then, "that fillies can't be gelded". Balding has always been saddled with horsey metaphors, being a daughter of the turf, and more specifically, a daughter of former jockey and champion racehorse trainer Ian Balding. Her uncle Toby was also a successful trainer, as were both her grandfathers, and her paternal grandfather, Gerald Balding, was a 10-goal polo player, ie as good as they get.

Grandpa Balding, whom she never knew, used to run a polo team for the American billionaire Jock Whitney, who showed his gratitude by funding the education of Ian and Toby Balding. Later, another rich, grateful and American benefactor, the philanthropist Paul Mellon – owner of the great Mill Reef, winner of the Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1971, and trained by Ian Balding – did the same for Clare and her brother Andrew. She went to the same girls' boarding school, Downe House in Berkshire, as the comedian Miranda Hart. Not surprisingly, Balding was head girl. She is still one of nature's head girls.

From Downe House she went to Cambridge University, but she was also determined to follow in her father's stirrups. After all, she had learnt to ride almost before she could walk, and her first Shetland pony had been a gift from the Queen, a regular visitor to Ian Balding's stables at Kingsclere in Hampshire. Keeping her weight in check was never easy, and eventually finished her career as a jockey, but it was not without success. She rode a number of winners on the flat, and in the week that she took up her place at Newnham College to read English, needed to win at either Chepstow or Folkestone to clinch the ladies' championship. Her director of studies allowed her to skip lectures on condition that she taught him to read racing form.

In her second year, she became president of the Cambridge Union. It was invaluable training for the broadcasting career that followed after BBC radio's racing correspondent, Cornelius Lysaght, suggested a voice test. She started by reading the racing bulletins on Danny Baker's show, then graduated to television after Julian Wilson, Lysaght's TV counterpart and a friend of her parents, proposed a screen test.

Plainly, her family contacts have eased her passage through what seems, the odd jibe from A A Gill apart, to have been a gilded life. On closer inspection, it has not always been the smoothest of rides. Although her parents have come to terms with her sexuality, and have embraced Arnold, it was manifestly not the life they wanted for their only daughter.

Balding kept her sexuality a secret for a long, long time, but is now almost disarmingly open about it. About her decidedly upper-class lineage, she is more reticent, doubtless because it exposes her to the suggestion that her birth and background have propelled her to success, not her talent.

Of course, nobody can deny that she is both posh and lucky. Her first Shetland pony, Valkyrie, had previously been ridden by Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. The Queen was a regular guest. Her parents know everyone in racing circles. Even had she not been formidably bright, things would have turned out. But the BBC, contrary to what those message-board ranters believe, does not give out screen jobs willy-nilly, even to Cambridge graduates with royal connections.

Balding was good to start with, and she has got better, spreading her wings beyond sport to become one of the corporation's most versatile broadcasters. She hasn't yet turned into Des Lynam's female equivalent, as once predicted in these pages, but she's certainly had a very good Olympic Games.

A life in brief

Born Clare Victoria Balding, 29 January 1971, Kingsclere, Hampshire.

Family Her father, Ian, was a horse trainer, as is her brother, Andrew. In 2006 she entered into a civil partnership with newsreader Alice Arnold.

Education Downe House girls' school in Berkshire; English at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Career In 1989 and 1990, she was a leading amateur flat jockey, before becoming a trainee with BBC Radio in 1994. In 1995, she made her TV presenting debut during Royal Ascot, and is now one of the BBC's main sports presenters.

She says "I've always been positive, but not always happy. I've tried too hard to be things I'm not."

They say "At the moment no one is doing the job better in my view than La Balding." Des Lynam, presenter