Ken Jones: Why the Olympics can make rowing fans of us all

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The Independent Online

To think we actually choose the sports that matter to us is, of course a delusion. Our sports choose us. Personal history and individual temperament seem to make each of us susceptible to the lure of a particular sport or, just as surely, reject it out of hand.

To think we actually choose the sports that matter to us is, of course a delusion. Our sports choose us. Personal history and individual temperament seem to make each of us susceptible to the lure of a particular sport or, just as surely, reject it out of hand.

From long experience, the Olympic Games provide a severe test of this theory. Events that normally wouldn't raise much more than a flicker of general interest suddenly captivate the public. Last weekend, for example, a friend whose passion for sport is confined almost exclusively to football, rose early on Saturday morning to watchBritain's coxless four of Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams edge out Canada for the gold medal by just 0.8sec. "I haven't got a clue about rowing, never even watched the Boat Race, but it turned out to be one of the most thrilling things I've seen in sport," he said.

By any standards this was a major event but since plenty of attention has been grabbed by sports that fall into the minor category, the carping of people who argue that the Olympics could do with some serious pruning is pointless.

Apart from the reporting of wars, nothing, to my mind, has been more altered by television than the coverage of sport, most conspicuously the Olympics. Today's pictures are tomorrow's words. After seven Olympic assignments, watching at long range provides an opportunity to remark on the unquestionable effect television has had on the old ways of working.

The first searing hint of this came at the Munich Olympics in 1972 when prominent members of the world's press were bemused by urgent requests for words about Olga Korbut, the Russian gymnast who had captured the hearts of many millions on television.

No British sportswriter of the day had a bigger name than Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror. Writing for a circulation of around five million and present at every Olympics, summer and winter, since Berlin in 1936, he could see no reason why Korbut should be given a look-in, dismissing her bluntly as a "Russian tumbler". There were no encouraging signs of a thaw in Wilson's attitude, but Korbut's performances could not be ignored. If the rotten, sinister truth of her cruel exploitation had yet to be revealed, there is no doubt at all that television's projection of Korbut world-wide altered the traditional perspective of Olympic coverage in newspapers.

Words cannot match what we see but a personal point of view, one nobody is obliged to share, is that the BBC's obsession with hiring former athletes works in favour of the sportswriting fraternity. The gain in expertise is lost when it becomes necessary to prise from performers their innermost feelings. Take, for example, the interview Steve Cram conducted with Paula Radcliffe the day after her harrowing experience in the marathon. Appearing nervous, Cram was enveloped by Radcliffe's emotion. The moment desperately needed a trained journalist's touch.

Whatever the reason for Radcliffe's failure to complete the course, whether she lost the will to go on or suffered more in the heat than she'd anticipated, I found the mass outpouring of compassion somewhat disturbing. Some have suggested that Radcliffe gave up. I am not sure about this. However, the simple truth is that she lost a race she was expected to win as 2-1 favourite. As moving as it was to see Radcliffe sobbing her heart out at the roadside it was hardly a national disaster.

Radcliffe's terrific efforts as a marathon runner since Olympic disappointments on the track, first in Atlanta, then in Sydney, her charm and the courageous challenge she has thrown out to drug cheats have made her a hugely popular figure. However, as someone pointed out this week, she is a professional athlete whose earnings, by conservative estimate, exceed £5m. When I mentioned this to a colleague who began covering the Olympics before all but a handful of the competitors in Athens were born, he took the view that Radcliffe has been around long enough to know that there are bound to be days when things go wrong. "I felt for Paula," he said, "but in my view the response to her failure went completely over the top. It's happened to athletes in the past and it will happen in the future."

What, one wonders, might Radcliffe have heard had she been running under the tuition of Charles van Commenee who coached Kelly Sotherton to bronze in the heptathlon. By a margin of five seconds in the 800 metres, Sotherton lost out on a silver medal and was left in tears by Van Commenee's harsh admonishment. "She didn't run like a warrior," he said.

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