Brian Viner: Gunnell's fall at broadcasting hurdle cannot affect her athletic greatness

'Plenty of people at the end of their careers take a media job for granted'
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The Independent Online

The Sally Gunnell affair has been one of the past week's more diverting sporting sideshows. To recap, the BBC announced last weekend, shortly after the former Olympic champion had finished second to Ian Wright in a poll of the most annoying sports pundits, that it would not be renewing her contract as a trackside interviewer. A mightily peeved Gunnell responded that the Beeb had been rotten sports and offered her no training, whereupon someone at the BBC said that Gunnell had been given loads of advice but appeared to have absorbed none of it.

Whatever the truth of the matter, even Gunnell seems to acknowledge that as an interviewer she made a pretty fine ex-hurdler. For some, her nadir was "What were you thinking there?" to Kelly Holmes just after the Olympic 800 metres final in Athens, as on the monitor they watched Holmes approaching the line.

My colleague Chris Maume, in his column a few days later, waspishly suggested that Holmes should have answered "dialectical materialism". Still, at least it was a question. One of Gunnell's chief failings was that she too often mistook statements for questions - "Great race!" "Great crowd!" - before thrusting her microphone under the athlete's nose, which on more than one occasion was still dripping with a not especially telegenic mixture of sweat and mucus.

Nevertheless, my sympathies are broadly with Gunnell, at least insofar as she is a casualty of a tendency on the part of all sports broadcasters to hire retired sportspeople to do jobs which come as naturally to them as might the 110m hurdles to, say, Adrian Chiles. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that Chiles brings a journalistic acuity to Match of the Day 2 that would serve the Saturday show well. I yield to nobody in my admiration of Gary Lineker, but there are times, especially when Wright is in the studio, when the ex-pro vibe becomes exasperating.

In a way, Lineker is at the root of the problem. The diligence with which he set about learning his new profession, even de-flattening those Leicester vowels, got the White City suits thinking that any reasonably intelligent sportsperson could do the same. And, in fairness, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Andy Gray, and in other sports John McEnroe, John Francome, Jim Watt, Michael Johnson and Mark Nicholas all embody the merit of hiring past masters (which slightly flatters Nicholas, if not the others) to assess the efforts of a new generation.

But television and radio executives, and sometimes their newspaper counterparts, got over-excited, dishing out contracts to anyone who had ever inhaled Ralgex fumes. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes badly wrong. One of the very best reasons to listen to TalkSport radio is the commendable Andy Townsend, who had to work at his football but is a broadcasting natural, while one of the reasons to turn it off is Rodney Marsh, a footballing natural but near the foot of the Unibond League as a broadcaster. On his afternoon show a few days ago I heard him say "I'll tell you what" eight times in a minute and a half, and I didn't even want to know what he was telling me in the first place.

Anyway, the effective sacking of both Gunnell and Peter Schmeichel, whose contract the BBC has also just terminated - reportedly because executives had tired of his interminable sentences which careered all over the place, very often with a mention for Manchester United whether they were playing or not, and impressive as it was to hear a Dane with a Cheshire accent, never especially revealingly, although I did quite like it when he talked about goalkeeping angles - perhaps indicates that the bubble, finally, has burst. If so, it is not a moment too soon. I meet plenty of people nearing the end of their sporting careers who take it utterly for granted that there will be a media job waiting for them. Some express concern that they might not enjoy it; none of them seem to worry that they might be rubbish at it.

This brings me to another of the difficulties inherent in handing retired sports stars new careers in the media, which is that, more often than not, they are strangers to humility. This, of course, is usually why they were such high achievers in the sporting arena, and Schmeichel is as good an example as any. Arrogance is desirable in a goalkeeper, less so in a broadcaster. But then, is it reasonable to expect someone, at the end of a fabulously rewarding sporting career, having been one of the very best in the world, to want to serve any kind of apprenticeship? Lineker did, and so did Sue Barker, but most don't see the need.

As for poor old Sally Gunnell, the most regrettable thing of all is that a true sporting great should end up not even quite winning a poll of the most annoying sports pundits. It's worth reminding ourselves that she remains the only British athlete to hold simultaneously titles at Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth levels. How extraordinary, and how sad, that some people now think of her as a failure.

Who I like this week...

The Manchester City manager, Stuart Pearce, whose words "pathetic" and "embarrassing" might have been aimed at the things said by Sven Goran Eriksson to the News of the World's fake sheikh, but were levelled at suggestions that he should be the Swede's successor as England coach. It is ironic that a man nicknamed "Psycho" is rapidly acquiring a reputation as one of the most rational men in football. He is right to dismiss the idea that "a novice with less than one year's experience in club management" should manage his country. That said, he has done a splendid job at City and there cannot be a single England fan who would not like him to get the job at some stage.

And who I don't

Damir Dokic, a far more suitable candidate for the nickname "Psycho", who has eclipsed Mary Pierce's old man as the prototype tennis father from hell. His response to his daughter Jelena's defeat in the Australian Open was an outburst even madder than usual, in which he said he had thought about murdering an Australian in revenge for a contentious decision against Jelena in her losing match against the Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano. I fancy Jelena herself would say that her dad is a more negative influence on her career than any supposedly dodgy line calls. Besides, TV replays proved this particular call to be correct.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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