Watching sport on TV can sometimes be like an endurance test. The first three days of a golf tournament, for instance, where the pitter-patter of sparse clapping only just serves to keep viewers from slipping deep into unconsciousness.
Or sitting through the first half of ITV’s coverage of England’s match against Montenegro – then enduring Adrian Chiles’ desperate attempts to win over Roy Keane and Theo Walcott in the half-time break with the shoulder-shrugging, questions upon questions and self-deprecation that scream “beta male”.
Conversely, when you watch TV coverage of an actual endurance test, it can be enthralling. Take BBC Scotland’s Adventure Show, which last week featured the Celtman – a triathlon with a two-mile swim across a loch, a 125-mile bike ride and a marathon over some daunting, stark highland peaks, making it even harder than an ironman.
The race – billed as the extreme of what can be achieved in a day – began with smiling athletes but as the race wore on the participants’ faces grew grimmer and their answers more monosyllabic as cameras were shoved in their faces in the transition zones.
Those seemingly intrusive cameras let the viewer inside the heads of the competitors, as the female winner, Kathrin Müller of Germany said, having dismounted her bike before heading up a rain-soaked, fog-bound mountain: “My body is empty, it is all about the mind now. We’ll see how I go.”
Graeme Stewart, the men’s winner, added: “I have been to some pretty dark places in previous events so I know I can come through to the other side.” And that was before he was filmed staggering over scree-covered Scottish mountains, with ankle-snapping rocks made slick with the torrential rain.
It was a good warm-up for Saturday’s Ironman World Championships, which stretched the idea of endurance TV to extremes. Unlike the Celtman, the triathlon was held in utterly benign conditions in Kona, Hawaii – where the only meteorological danger was severe sunburn – and the entire thing was streamed live.
Anyone who sat through the coverage throughout Saturday night was worthy of a medal themselves. Yes, the commentators, Matt Lieto and Greg Welch, were knowledgeable. But 90 minutes is more than enough for the likes of ITV’s football commentator Clive Tyldesley to mince the English language, let alone nine hours or more. In the heat of live TV, when any stumble or slip will be picked up and where silence is deadly, it is tough to hold listeners’ interest. And that is when everything goes right.
As the race wore on, it became an object lesson in how to fill time without descending into banality. Or, at times, how not to.
Midway through the bike section, over what looked like a Martian landscape, Welch – whose Aussie accent is broader than Crocodile Dundee’s – attempted to cross to Michael Lovato, a fellow pundit and ironman. “Whatcha got, Mike?” he said. A couple of seconds of muffled scrapes of a microphone later, accompanying images of the female leader, Amanda Stevens, powering just ahead of a clutch of Britons, including Rachel Joyce (pictured), Jodie Swallow and Liz Blatchford, he came on screen. To give what the uninitiated may dismiss as an infomercial on a gadget that measures sweat rate.
And, that meant, two hours in, we had had enough.