Robin Scott-Elliot: Ghost of Games past swept aside in rush for celebrity

View From The Sofa: Winter olympics, BBC
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The Independent Online

The gold rush, the BBC assured us with eyes shut and fingers tightly crossed, starts here. Friday, the night of the long slide: "Punch through with us," encouraged Hazel Irvine and handed over to Clare Balding, who revealed that Amy Williams "had slept very well and eaten".

The tension in Vancouver was palpable. Here was a chance for the BBC to justify buying a blizzard of ski jackets to equip the largest British expeditionary force dispatched to Canada since General Wolfe had a go at Quebec. Here was, as they like to say over in Quebec, their raison d'être with padded jackets on.

With two runs and an hour or so of curling in between it was not going to be a sprint to gold. As for the whole gold rush thing, did that mean the first of many (surely not)? Or was someone being clever and saying that because Amy (it was first name terms all night) was going to be going very quickly and was trying to win? There was ample time to ruminate into the wee small hours. Do cross-country skiers walk like they ski? What's the point of skiing uphill?

Having live curling in between the two skeleton runs only made the task of punching through all the more challenging. Over at the Stoning Center (as it should be called, see below) Steve Cram was waiting. Why is Cram the curling commentator? Because he comes from the North-east and that's close to Scotland? "That's well swept by the British team," he said.

The BBC team is an odd ensemble, a mix of experts in their field and others shoehorned into improbable slots – Cram at the curling or the endearingly enthusiastic Hugh Porter, the Summer Games' cycling man, at the ice skating. Some of them are not great; the gabbling and garbled coverage of the snowboarding wasn't one of the Games' highlights.

There is a recurring irritation across the board, let alone snowy ones, that commentators talk too much. The days of Richie Benaud and David Vine letting pictures speak are unfortunately gone. There were times, though, when that could be taken too far. There is the legend of the marathon at an Olympics when not a word was offered for the opening miles of the race. The commentator was lauded for having let the event breathe. In fact, so the tale goes, having overindulged in his research the previous night, he had only got to the mic an hour into the race.

Colin Bryce, a former bobsleigher, and Paul Dickenson were paired up at the Sliding Center. The skeleton is not the most televisual event and it relied solely on the gradual increase of tension at the prospect of gold. "She's already clawed back 1/100th of a second," said Bryce, before adding, "it doesn't sound like much."

In the stands, four bare-chested British fans had A, M, Y spelt out on their bellies. They clearly hadn't thought it through. Then it was over and Amy fought her way out of the pile of foam laid on the track to stop the sliders as a gold medal winner. "Not very dignified," said Dickenson who, according to the BBC, once broke the world record for throwing the boomerang.

Up popped Steve Redgrave, the ghost of Olympics past, to chat to Balding, doing her usual enthusiastic job of filling an awful lot of airtime. Suddenly there was Amy, and Balding, despite being half his size, had Redgrave out of the way in a flash to get to Britain's new star. "Instant celebrity," pointed out Irvine. The rush job was over. Time to punch on through with the cross-country skiing.

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