Profile: He's really quite remarkable: David Coleman

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The Independent Online
DAVID COLEMAN never said, 'Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class,' any more than Queen Victoria said, 'We are not amused.' The words belong to the late Ron Pickering, but Private Eye got it wrong. The chances are that Coleman was not amused. A lot of people were, however. Who knows how much damage that one mis-attribution did, how much it contributed to the image crisis that Coleman has put up with for so many years?

Undeservedly or not, it is the lot of the British sports commentator to suffer the barbs and carping of his public. Some of them, and Coleman is certainly one, are as much a part of the national picture as the sportsmen whose acts of valour they describe. Private Eye's 'Colemanballs' is the distillation of that. That the column should be named after him does not remotely undermine his position as the undisputed founding father of modern British sports broadcasting, the commentator who moves the hearts other commentators cannot reach.

'I remember him screaming, 'Hemery of Great Britain, Hemery of Great Britain . . . He crucified them, he killed the field,' ' recalls David Hemery of his victory in the 400 metres hurdles in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. 'What was so special was just his identification with the delight of it. The delight was expressed by the range of octaves through which his voice went.'

More or less since the inception of the BBC's regular outside sports broadcasts, Coleman's has been the voice that brought the event into the living room. He anchored Grandstand and Sportsnight long before anyone had ever heard of Frank Bough or Desmond Lynam. At 66, he is still there, and the Barcelona Olympic Games are his ninth with the BBC. 'That is a phenomenal record by any standards,' says Brian Moore, the ITV football commentator.

Coleman was the first commentator whose voice proclaimed that he neither attended a public school nor pretended to have done. 'He was the standard that I always aspired to,' says Moore. 'Broadcasting commentators generally were chaps, and he brought a hard journalistic edge to commentating. He was the first to do it and probably remains the strongest in that field.'

His background, both in sport and sports journalism, was in the north-west. A county-standard middle-distance runner, the height of his athletics career was winning the Manchester Mile in 1949. He also turned out a few times for Stockport County reserves.

Starting on the Stockport Express, he moved through a succession of local newspapers, and began freelancing on the radio in 1953. His stint as a news assistant on a Birmingham paper held him in good stead during his finest hour when, at the Munich Olympics in 1972, he held the fort magnificently as a reporter after the Israeli athletes were taken hostage in the Olympic village.

In 1959 he arrived at the BBC, where over the years he and Pickering formed one of the great unsung double acts of British television - unsung because although they were indomitably professional they were quite without ostentation or foible. Pickering, a registered athletics coach and a vocal anti-drugs campaigner, was the swotty one, all nous and info. If there was anything he didn't know about the Bulgarian hurdler, the Somali marathon runner or the Finnish javelin thrower then it wasn't worth knowing.

Coleman, who was not as immersed in the sport to the same depth as Pickering, could never compete on these statistical or technical fronts. His job was to inject the hysterics, to get as excited as a demented despot in full oratorical flight.

Perhaps he still does sometimes double up his negatives, but there has never been a shortfall in drama when Coleman is at the microphone. 'Pickering certainly had a breadth of experience that David didn't,' says Hemery, 'but he didn't have what Coleman brought, a level of enthusiasm as the race heated up, to be able to verbalise what many people were feeling.'

Spitting Image caricatured him as a commentator who literally explodes at the merest hint of athletic action. In one sketch he reaches fever pitch as Seb Coe breaks for the line with 600 metres still to go. 'And I've gone far far too early,' he screams with about a minute of commentating time to fill. 'I'll never be able to keep up this level of excitement.'

'We do occasionally get over-enthusiastic,' he once admitted in an interview, 'but viewers don't understand sometimes the pressures we work under.' Hemery recalls the 'most unfortunate slip' when Coleman, in his excitement, said, 'And who cares who came third?' after the Mexico 400 metres hurdles. The man in question was Hemery's fellow-Briton John Sherwood.

Brian Moore says: 'I think he would probably tell you, and I would certainly endorse it, that when you look at the things that you are alleged to have said you can't believe you said them. I think probably it's true that three quarters of the time people only think that's what they heard. All our work is done without a script. When you're talking live to the nation for a couple of hours without script, there are going to be a few things that make you think, 'My god, did I really say that? What an idiot I am.' '

Hemery talks of Coleman's 'mental agility'. 'His identification was absolutely 100 per cent,' says Moore of his football commentaries. 'Whereas some of us mumble and stumble when goals are scored that are difficult to call, I can't ever recall David getting a thing wrong.' But then he always sounded as if he didn't expect to. When the first goal of a game was scored, he had a way of saying 'One-nil' that vigorously implied he knew it had been coming all along.

One should take this into account as Private Eye continues to lampoon. 'There's one in the coming issue which is just so subtle,' says Barry Fantoni, who compiles the Colemanballs column. 'It's a race that the Kenyans have dominated - but, looking at the records, it's the first time they've won it.' It's like Titian in his late period. You've got to look twice at it and then you realise there's a master at work, a man who really has never got it right.'

Harsh and unfair. One of Coleman's great skills, say colleagues, is to be able to marshal information that comes at him simultaneously from several different sources. Under such pressure infelicities do slip out. 'I think the gaffes are probably more talked about by other journalists than they are by the athletes,' says Hemery. 'He is certainly looked on with some respect as far as being knowledgeable within the area. He is a supporter and an enthusiast; those things actually carry a lot of weight with the athlete. There is genuine empathy.'

One rare piece of criticism from within the sport was voiced by Sebastian Coe. 'I am fuelled by David Coleman's comments that I am tactically naive,' he wrote in his autobiography. Another of Coe's complaints was that Coleman says one thing in the course of a race and then goes back on it later. That probably stems from his penchant for hyperbole. If a runner is lagging towards the rear of a 1500 metres field, Coleman will as often as not say they are in 'terrible trouble'. If the runner does get out of jail Coleman has to do more backtracking than commentators with a duller turn of phrase.

There has never been a dull moment with Coleman. This is partly because, by some accident of anatomy, his tear ducts are apparently located somewhere inside his larynx. He has a voice that sounds as if it is going to start crying any second. Once, famously, he very nearly did cry, when Ann Packer took the 800 metres gold in Tokyo in 1964. (Many years later, and for a very different reason, he nearly did again, when he commentated at an athletics meeting for the first time since Pickering's death.)

It was perhaps because of this that Coleman was never frog-marched off to the minority sports - badminton or bowls, fencing or volleyball - where his sense of drama would have been misplaced. His legal wrangle with the BBC in the mid-1970s, which kept him off the screen for a year, centred on his complaint that he was used too parsimoniously and did not have enough editorial involvement.

That dispute revealed a hard-headed side to the man whose affability is one of the ingredients which make the Coleman-chaired A Question of Sport, with its pullovers and pub repartee, the cosy long-running success it is. He has been known to get to the end of a short fuse when things don't go his way in the commentary box or the studio. 'He can be cantankerous occasionally,' says Mike Adley, the producer of A Question of Sport. 'It can be difficult when he doesn't know you but once he trusts you there isn't a problem.'

'He always had a very well-rehearsed barb aimed in my direction,' recalls Brian Moore of the years when they both commentated on the Cup Final. 'When you met round the back of the stadium by your scanners he'd say to me, 'Oh here he is, seeking an inferior audience again.' You'd curse yourself for not having a rejoinder ready. That was his way of just hyping himself up and trying to get one up on you. He probably still is the last word in competitiveness.' Perhaps Private Eye got it right after all. Coleman does have balls.

A couple of years ago the nation was informed that he had suffered a heart attack - and no wonder, one might think, given the emotionally exacting nature of his job - but it turned out to be shingles. He reached retirement age last year, and it is hard to imagine him staying on as long as the octogenarian Brian Johnston and Dan Maskell, who belong to calmer sports. When he does hang up his mike, the Games, and sports broadcasting in general, will not be the same. He will have gone far far too early.

(Photograph omitted)