Quite remarkable man

PROFILE : David Coleman The voice of athletics is remembered for his faux pas. Stan Hey assesses his real contribution
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IT IS an ironic fact of life for many public figures that they are more likely to be remembered for the least of their achievements rather than their greatest. Take the famous foreign correspondent Rene Cutforth who had filed vivid newspaper and television reports from most of the world's trouble spots, but who, late in life, appeared in a series of adverts for a margarine. Sure enough, the headline in the Daily Mirror which marked his death read "Krona Man Dead".

A similar fate surely awaits the BBC's athletics commentator David Coleman, who after 40 years of valiant service behind a microphone or in front of a camera, is destined to be remembered as the man who gave his name to "Colemanballs", the collective noun for any gaffe or non sequitur which a sports commentator might inflict upon us.

This isn't to suggest that Coleman's personal or professional obituary is about to be written - at the age of 69 he has just had his BBC contract extended by two years in order to guarantee his presence at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the 17th Games he will have covered. But when he does hang up his running spikes, it's to be hoped that his genuine achievements in the art of sports presenting will be given due prominence.

In his defence, there are only perhaps a half dozen truly memorable howlers to be remembered. Even before Private Eye had enshrined his name, the satirical football magazine Foul had picked up this Coleman gem during his commentary on the 1976 Uefa Cup final: "For those of you with black and white sets, Liverpool are wearing the all-red strip."

Perhaps his most embarrassing blunder also involved football, when he referred to Scotland's Asa Hartford as "a whole-hearted player" when the television audience knew that Hartford had suffered since birth with a hole-in-the-heart condition. To his credit, Coleman quickly withdrew his remark on that occasion but since the bandwagon started rolling in the mid-1970s, almost everything he says has millions of people listening, many of them waiting to claim their pounds 10 reward for sending a "Colemanballs" to Private Eye. They will be on standby throughout this week as he brings his unique style of commentary - statistics-heavy preamble to a race, allied to orgasmic shrieks at its finish - for the world athletics championships in Gothenburg.

In fact Coleman is less prone to mistakes covering athletics because it is the sport he truly loves. Born and educated in Cheshire, he became what one seasoned observer called "a good county standard runner" over 440 yards for Staffordshire in his early 20s, and his roots in the sport extend to his much cherished presidency of Wolverhampton & Bilston Athletics Club.

For a while, he managed to combine his running with his journalistic work, first for Kemsley newspapers, then as editor, at 22, of the County Press in Cheshire. But in 1953, Coleman began freelance radio work in Manchester and later became sports editor for the BBC Midland region in 1955.

It was at this time that BBC television's inspirational Head of Sport, Peter Dimmock, had embarked upon a huge increase in its coverage, sensing the passion for sport in a society of growing wealth and leisure time. In his ever readable book Sport and the British, author Richard Holt refers to the BBC's previous use of "the ranks of Oxbridge enthusiasts as commentators" and to Dimmock's intention to broaden the range of voices.

"Peter was a powerful expansionist force within the BBC, heading a list of commentators which included Harry Carpenter (boxing), Kenneth Wolstenholme (football), Henry Longhurst (golf), John Arlott, Peter West and Brian Johnston in cricket." Coleman soon joined their ranks after making a prophetic first television broadcast on the day that Roger Bannister broke the four- minute mile, and was brought in as Dimmock's protege for the weekly Sportsview programme.

Dimmock's other achievement was to secure many of the top sports events under a long-term contract, and also for them to be given "listed" protection by Parliament, measures which now prevent even greater acts of pillage by Rupert Murdoch. David Coleman, and the other great names of his generation, were thus in the forefront of modern sports coverage as technology began to shrink the world. Satellites beamed the 1964 Tokyo Olympics into our homes, and by the time of the 1970 World Cup finals, colour television was also available.

Coleman, as the BBC's chief sports commentator, covered both these events, as well as other Olympic and European tournaments. From the late 1960s he also anchored Grandstand and commentated for Match of the Day, before being given his own mid-week magazine programme, Sportsnight with Coleman.

A BBC sports producer at the time remembers his "tremendous ability to concentrate and to deal with streams of information both in front of him on paper, and coming direct through his ear-piece, although he was prone to fly off the handle if the sub-editors or the technicians cocked it up in any way". One such off-air tirade was taped and duly did the rounds of BBC Christmas office parties.

But it was in 1972 that Coleman produced his greatest turn at the microphone, when the Olympic Games in Munich were brutally hijacked by a group of Palestinian terrorists bent on slaughtering the Israeli contingent. As the cameras lingered over the hooded figures on the balconies of the Olympic Village, Coleman was obliged to stay on air for many hours, covering both the siege and its bloody resolution and, by common consent, did a splendid job both in tone and text.

His other great commentaries of this period also live long in the memory - the rasping, roaring climax as David Hemery won the 400m hurdles at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and the paroxysms of ecstasy as the ill-fated Lillian Board came late to win the 800m in the 1969 European Championships.

Geoff Wightman, who has represented Britain in the marathon at both European and Commonwealth level, but who is now a partner in the sports management group Park Associates - Seb Coe and Steve Backley are clients - says that: "Coleman is the best there is at conveying the excitement at the closing stages of a big international event. When the old voice begins to rise, there's nobody like him."

Wightman also gives a clue as to why the BBC has renewed Coleman's contract. "I think for anyone watching athletics, he has a reassuring voice and a terrific grasp of the facts. After such a long time the familiarity he enjoys with the audience cannot be underestimated."

Since 1984, Coleman has concentrated on his first love, athletics, allowing the younger generation of Des Lynam and Steve Rider to pick up the presentational torch. He has also been the regular presenter of the BBC's highly successful quiz programme A Question of Sport, even bouncing back from illness to reclaim his seat from David Vine. But though his public profile remains high, Coleman has managed to retain an almost invisible presence when off duty. "He genuinely doesn't like being recognised," says one correspondent on the athletics circuit, "and tries to keep himself to himself, even when he's among athletes."

Wightman confirms this: "I met him on A Question of Sport once and he just wished me luck with my own commentaries on Eurosport. But in all the years I was competing I've never seen him do a public appearance or a speech, except one for the sponsors of the Paralympics. You never see him out and about."

This self-effacement evidently has no basis in the business of keeping cupboard doors closed on skeletons. Coleman lives quietly with his family in Buckinghamshire, and about the only vaguely lurid detail about him is that he apparently needs a drink or two at airports to quench his persistent fear of flying. "He lives for athletics," says another insider of the track. "He's an out-and-out enthusiast, and his regular on-air 'plugs' for minor meetings give him a tremendous popularity with the grassroots of the game."

The kindliness of the short- distance runner, who never made it to the top himself, but who at least won the chance to celebrate the achievements of others, is a fitting image as we listen in to Coleman this week. For like Dan Maskell, Peter O'Sullevan, Harry Carpenter and other long-term servants behind the microphones of BBC TV, Coleman has reached the pinnacle of his career by becoming The Voice of his sport. Quite remarkable, really.