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Jack Pitt-Brooke: That sinking feeling as Beeb are out of their depth covering the Boat Race

View From The Sofa: The Boat Race, BBC 1
  • @JPBIndy

Who expects drama at the Boat Race? Not the BBC, clearly. The rowing, on Easter Saturday, is meant to be one of the definitive middle-class sporting events of the year. Having long ago lost Test cricket, and last month admitting that horse racing is galloping that same path to Channel 4, the BBC is left clinging desperately to the Boat Race as if it were one of the last outcrops of the British Empire.

In what was once a set of society sporting jewels, the Boat Race now stands out, and has to do the work for the rest. So a 20-minute amateur sporting contest is awarded a two-hour slot on a busy afternoon of competition, with high-quality rugby, football and golf elsewhere.

But, for all that time and attention, there is clearly not much scope for the unexpected. Sky Sports' football coverage is very obviously built to give the best possible platform to unanticipated controversies: Geoff Shreeves and Andy Burton are never happier than when they are revealing some undignified confrontation in the tunnel or technical areas; Carlos Tevez's reluctance to play, or Luis Suarez's reluctance to shake, can sometimes seem more important than the game itself, rather than an unpleasant side effect.

The Boat Race, though, is meant to be different. A simple competition, grounded in years of tradition, showcasing Victorian values of muscular Christianity, on the perfect weekend for it. A well-rowed race, a celebratory dip, an admiring interview with the impeccably spoken winning captain, before we are all whisked off to Grandstand. Serene, predictable and slightly aloof: perfect for the broadcasters.

But not this year. The 158th race will always be known as the one which a swimmer interrupted, and that was only the start of it. "He could have had his head chopped off," panicked the commentator.

If Sky had the Boat Race (they already have varsity rugby union) we might have had Shreeves crouched on the banks of the Thames, and Burton stationed atop Putney Bridge, eager to break news of shock intruders, surprise stops and hotly anticipated restarts. Sky's eager reporters would ferret, uncover and unveil, keeping viewers and commentators informed.

Instead we had worry and bother. One venerable old institution tried to cover another venerable old institution, but did not know how to react to such surprises. After the restart, there was a snapped oar and a collapse due to exhaustion, and when it was all over, no one knew how to react.

In hope of finding the right tone, Clare Balding spoke to assistant umpire Matthew Pinsent, as reliable a beacon of the BBC's sporting values as anyone. Worried that even he could not find the correct balance between concern and congratulation, Balding wandered off to look elsewhere. Lingering alongside the Cambridge huddle until she was noticed, Balding eventually spoke to hulking American Steve Dudek. He was pitch-perfect, dignified and respectful: on a day of surprises, it took a man from the University of Wisconsin for the BBC to find the right words.