Chris Maume: Memories of superstar tales that we heard from the great Vine
View from the Sofa: David Vine Weekend, ESPN Classic, Saturday and Sunday
Monday 19 January 2009
David Vine's last public pronouncement before his death last weekend was to rail against the BBC for cutting his venerable former colleague Clive Everton from their snooker coverage. It was another sorry staging post, he felt, in the colonisation of sports commentary by untrained ex-pros, who bring their undoubted knowledge to the table but not necessarily the gift of conveying the essentials of an event with a few well-chosen words.
It came from the heart, you felt – especially given the rumours that his retirement a few years ago wasn't exactly his choice. Before that, though, he was one of the stalwarts of the Beeb, and ESPN Classic have devoted the last two days to a retrospective of his finest moments.
By his own account, the stand-out on his CV was Superstars, which he presented with another of the BBC's most famous names, Ron Pickering. "We had the privilege of working with the greatest sportspeople in the world," he said in Vine on Vine (Saturday, repeated Sunday). "I'm more proud of working on Superstars than anything else I've ever done in my career, I can tell you."
Though the Americans beat the BBC to it by nine months in 1973, Vine said that three years before that he'd got together in a Leeds hotel with Pickering, Don Revie, Billy Bremner and a BBC producer and formulated the concept. "And the BBC, said, 'Don't be daft – you'll never do it'." By that, they meant that it would be impossible to convene so many luminaries from different sports in the same place at the same time. Instead, he said, "they ended up queueing up to take part. They were pitting their will to win against other guys from different sports ... they used to ask each other for autographs – 'It's not for my kid, it's for me'." He described interviewing the Swiss world downhill skiing champion Bernhard Russi after he'd won the 100 metres one year.
"He was jumping up and down, throwing his hands in the air. He said, 'It's the greatest moment of my life!' I said, 'Don't be stupid'. He said, 'Look at the people I've beaten!' "
What it proved, Vine said, "was that champions in one sport would have been champions in another sport".
And it's true that the competitive spirit shines through in all the footage – nowhere more so than in Superstars' most famous moment, the Kevin Keegan bike crash. Clipping the back wheel of the Belgian footballer Gilbert van Binst, he goes down and slides along the cinder track. After lying motionless for a bit he gets up and strolls off to be interviewed.
"His back is like a bit of raw meat," Vine says on the commentary, adding now, "he thought he was all right because he was the only person in the stadium who hadn't seen his back."
He came back for the final event, the steeplechase, won it, "then he was on a drip in Northampton hospital for three days."
Though that's the incident we remember most in Britain, my favourite Superstars story concerns the opening event in the very first programme, in the US. Lining up for the 50 metres freestyle swimming was the game Joe Frazier, who had only just lost his world heavyweight title to George Foreman. I say game because, as it turned out, he couldn't swim – a fact he neglected to mention until after he'd nearly drowned.
When an interviewer asked him what on earth he'd been playing at, he replied, "How was I to know I couldn't [swim] unless I tried it?" It's on YouTube if you fancy a giggle.
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