Sport on TV: The hills are alive with the sound of drunken Dutchmen and sober truth
Sunday 23 July 2006
There are certain fixed points in the British sporting calendar, hallowed by time: the Cheltenham Festival; the first Lord's Test; Wimbledon fortnight; and Bash Peter Alliss week, otherwise known as Open week.
This year, criticism of the silver-haired sage of golf began before the first drive from the tee at Hoylake, after he said in an interview of his fellow commentator Gary Lineker's performance at the Masters: "If I was a golf fan... I would have given him a three or four [out of 10]. But you see that's unfair. Gary was very nervous and he did a very good job. He's very good at reading the autocue."
But if a 75-year-old with no desire to retire sees fit to criticise a fellow commentator some 30 years younger with a far more illustrious sporting pedigree and a career in the ascendancy, who are we to judge? And those who tiresomely bring up Alliss's remark as Phil Mickelson sunk the winning putt at Augusta in 2004 - "It's not over yet" - should be reminded firmly that even Homer nodded.
As did the controllers at Channel 4 when they dumped their outstanding highlights programme of the Tour de France, the fixed point of the Gallic sporting calendar. Fortunately the package lives on, albeit in the hinterland of ITV4 (Tour de France Highlights, every night), and last week saw the most open Tour for years nearing its close, the final three stages prefaced by three days of blood, sweat, toil and gears in the Alps, as reported elsewhere in these pages.
The commentary team, led by another Gary, the ever-excellent Imlach of that ilk, and ably aided by the former Tour rider Chris Boardman, moved through all the right gears themselves. Phil Liggett, as quietly knowledgeable as he had been in the Channel 4 days, announced as the bemused pack tried to make sense of Floyd Landis's epic breakaway on Friday: "I've never seen a peloton in such a state of panic." And as the already broken ranks of the also-rans approached the slopes of the brutal final climb, he said: "We're going to see carnage on the Col de Joux-Plane."
If anything, he understated it; the "30 hot babes" promised in the annoyingly frequent phone-a-female ad breaks were positively glacial compared with the majority of the riders staggering over the steepest climb of the Tour.
If 60 minutes of sadism a day was not enough to slake your thirst, there was always Eurosport's daily live coverage; if you included their Backstage feature, previewing each stage, and their own highlights package, the wheels were sometimes turning for over seven hours a day.
James Richardson led their team, who oozed expertise; without an explanation of the tactics underpinning it, the Tour is a muddled, meaningless spectacle, but with their tutelage it was almost possible to kid yourself you had some vague clue as to what was going on. Certainly more of a clue than many of the million or so spectators who lined the history-drenched climb up to l'Alpe d'Huez on Tuesday - "The Dutchmen are absolutely crazy, and of course they're all absolutely drunk," said Christi Anderson, the perky American sent out into the big heat.
And the Eurosport experts weren't frightened to correct each other, either. On Thursday, David Harmon said: "They'll be 10 surprised men," as the flying fundamentalist Landis caught a breakaway. "No they won't, they'll have heard it on the race radio," instantly retorted the Tour legend Sean Kelly in his measured Tipperary tones. But at least you felt they were all on the same side.
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