Auntie-freeze for the winter blunderland

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been mooted in some quarters that the coverage of sport on BBC television has reached its nadir. I doubt this is true but I couldn't help noticing that yesterday it had got as far as Nagano. I'm painfully aware of how easy it is to criticise those whose job it is to keep the panting millions topped up with sporting thrills but the Beeb's best friends, if such creatures still exist, couldn't deny that it was a bad day for them.

Even two years ago you could not have imagined that the Corporation's proudest presentation on a Saturday which boasted France v England in the Five Nations and the third day of a West Indies v England Test was the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Japan at 2 o'clock in the morning.

One hesitates to harp on about how many events the BBC have surrendered to other channels but the loss of all but one of England's games in the Five Nations' Championship was particularly grievous and yesterday was our first experience of an absence that doesn't make the heart grow fonder.

The Scots and Irish may feel that this is a churlish disregard of the compensatory powers offered by the sight of their meeting at Lansdowne Road - and I am sure that members of those two nationalities forced to live in England were delighted - but, nevertheless, this is another large chunk hacked out of what the nation was silly enough to consider to be an everlasting entitlement.

Those who can't or won't pay for the satellite service will have to put up with a situation which is likely to get worse if the BBC continue to fight so half-heartedly to retain their most popular live sports. That they won't be showing the FA Cup final this year is disgraceful proof of their lack of will in this direction. The fact that ITV have bought it means, at least, the terrestrial viewer will not be deprived. If it wasn't for the Government's attempt, misguided in my opinion, to protect what events are left from satellite, the BBC would soon lose everything including Wimbledon.

A touch of sincere contrition from a higher level than their suicidal sports department might help to douse any disgruntlement over these losses but, far from displaying a shamed face, they've spent the past week bragging about their coverage of the Winter Olympics.

While appreciating that beggars can't be choosers, that they have to take what sport they can afford, it is profoundly irritating that they are proud of saddling us with over 100 hours of the action from Nagano. And the thought persists that those strange people who occupy the higher echelons of Broadcasting House actually believe that by providing over four solid days of prime snow and ice activity they are generously recompensing us for losing five hours of English international rugby.

No slight to the Winter Olympics is intended. I shall be watching out for Nicky Gooch, for the skiers Graham Bell and Andy Freshwater and for our bobsleighers as intently as most. But I have to admit that my appetite for winter sports and, I suspect, that of the majority of my compatriots would be satisfied by a lot less than 100 hours over 14 days. As it is, I am consumed by this helpless feeling that can only be compared with seeing an avalanche coming towards you.

It doesn't assist matters that the live action takes place in the early hours of the morning. Yesterday's opening ceremony at the Minami Nagano Sports Park was a foretaste of what the Beeb's large contingent will be parading for the insomniacs and night-shift security guards who normally watch at that time and who are said to number one and a half million.

Perhaps, this is one of the main reasons that the BBC are happy to have such a welter of winter sports on hand. Unless there's a decent film on one of the other channels, the late, late night viewer is forced to watch the new 24-hour rolling news channel which is switched to BBC1 between the hours of 1.30 and 6am.

One presumes that funding this monstrosity, which costs an amazing pounds 30m, is one of the reasons why there is no money available to spend on proper sport. I have experienced it in sleepless interludes and it is dire. To the poor souls who have to watch it regularly, the substitution of two hours of non-stop luge will be relief beyond description. Given the corporate desire for spin-off benefits, they will also collect enough footage of crashes, falls and tumbles to supply another riveting series of Auntie's Sporting Blunders.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the expert way in which the Beeb covers sporting events - indeed, my long-belaboured complaint against them is that they don't cover sport, only events - and their outside broadcasting unit will undoubtedly produce some startling stuff with 34 cameras and 68 stereo microphones plus three cameras embedded in the ice on the bob track. Some may feel that straightforward shot of a winning try a few miles down the road at Twickenham would eclipse anything gained from going all the way to Japan but that is probably too simplistic a view. The point is that the BBC cannot claim to be covering sport adequately if the coverage ignores the majority interest of their viewers.

In recent weeks followers of darts, bowls and snooker have had bountiful supplies of their favourite games. I like all three but it does seem that the Corporation are trying to compensate for the lack of major sports by saturating those they do get their hands on. "Is BBC Sport Dying?" asked one headline last weekend. In the absence of any sign that the leadership understands, or cares, what true coverage amounts to, the situation is probably terminal.

They have been criticised because their new head of sport, Bob Shennan, does not have a strong television background. But he has a good record in radio and, maybe, a non-visual man might recognise that good discussion programmes and regular news updates - I'm sick of following the Test match on Ceefax - can make for the absence of live action. There's more to good sports coverage than taking your entire supply of cameras and commentators to one event and blasting the living daylights out of it.

JUDGE Simon Tonking issued an odd judgment in Stafford Crown Court when he ruled that golf balls lost on a course could not be stolen as they had been "abandoned". Consequently, two men who donned wet-suits at night and retrieved 800 balls from lakes on Branston Golf Club were found not guilty of theft. Golfers everywhere will be delighted to learn that the club will appeal. At any given time, hundreds of lost golf balls are lying around the average course, whether in water or in the rough. And it should be established once and for all that those balls are the property of the golfers who play at that club.

I have argued this with fellow members who go out hunting for balls and sell them to the professional for re-sale. A ball is never abandoned on purpose. The rules give you only five minutes to search for it. At pounds 2 a time, balls are expensive, especially if you spray them around like I do. Lost balls should be left where they lie and the chances are that over a year a golfer will find as many as he loses. Anyone who hunts balls for profit on private ground is stealing from the golfers who play there.

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