Regal presence elevates flagging ceremony

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The Independent Online
THE opening ceremony for the World Athletics Championships took place on Friday night. It went with a bang: or, more strictly speaking, with several bangs, a ballet and a man in motorcycle leathers playing a trombone. And only Eurosport was on hand. The BBC are in Gothenburg too, but someone on their team must have cast an eye down the first-night bill - folk dancing; an appearance by the rock group Brainpool, performing their hit "Bandstarter"; a nine-year-old girl called Amanda saying hello to the world in three languages - and thought, "Forget it".

The cost to the viewer at home can be very simply summarised. No David Coleman. His opening-ceremony commentaries - fearless explanations of foreign folklore at its most obsure - have taken on a legendary status, frequently yielding at least as much entertainment as any event that succeeded them. Few who witnessed it will ever forget his elucidation of a particularly opaque Norse dance-saga-on-ice prior to the last Winter Olympics. Enormous clumps of people in tracksuits carrying flags around for hours on end cannot be the same without him.

Eurosport's commentary box contained Tim Hutchings and Steve Cram, both formerly distance runners of great repute but largely untested in the long haul which is arena-based Swedish pageantry. Tim and Steve surveyed the scene - which, at the point we went live, featured women in dangerously small dresses dancing expressively with men in dangerously large sailor- suits. "Massive presence down on the track," Tim admitted, a little nervously, like a man watching enemy troops gather. "We'll try and keep you abreast of what's happening."

For the next five minutes, Tim and Steve were silent. They were stunned, I imagine. The screen teemed with hundreds of people of all ages, shrouded in monk-like blue robes and doing areobics. It was as if Mr Motivator had got loose in a Pentecostal church. At home, we were left to infer what was going on from the captions which occasionally flipped up and from the evidence of our own eyes.

If either of these were to be trusted, we were watching the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Roy Hattersley with Alexi Lalas on clarinet. Finally, a horse-drawn carriage entered, bearing what appeared to be David Letterman, and Tim was suddenly back in action. "The Swedish Royal Family!" he said with audible relief at finally getting a toehold. From here on, there was no stopping them. "Choir on the track," Tim said knowledgeably. "Simulating the movement of the sea."

"It's a chance," Steve added, "to display the sea-faring culture of this city." As the night went on, confidence increased in bounds, to the point where a woman only had to stand up the middle of the arena wearing a blue leotard for Tim to identify with pin-point accuracy "a water-dance where Poseidon is lured into noble contest" - though it is just possible he read that one out of the programme. "And now a re-enactment of 70 young men starting a fight," Tim said, introducing one of the more novel, costumed items. "Well, it is Friday night," Steve said.

The teams paraded behind flags and shot out rather more quickly than usual. This was because most countries were fielding drastically reduced sides. Steve was able to draw on his own experience to explain the absence of nearly all the big stars. Evidently the "standing around" can affect your stamina. Also, "those flags are heavy".

Anyway, the ceremony was a ball, and Tim and Steve took their eye off it just once. We were looking at a picture of the King of Sweden, waving from his seat in the stand. "The man who took your crown, Steve," Tim said. This was extraordinary news. Casting back to my schooldays, I could dredge up nothing about a House of Cram flourishing in Europe, nor any memories of Steve appearing on foreign stamps. In fact, Tim and Steve had just spotted, carrying his nation's flag, the runner Abdibele who outpaced Cram in the 1500m a few years back. This is the one mild risk in Eurosport's team selection. Put two sportsmen together and they will natter. As Tim said, late on in the proceedings: "You blame me for everything, you do, Crammy." It's going to be a cosy week.

A strange and moving edition of QED (BBC 1, Tuesday) visited Monty Roberts, a Californian who has evolved a gentle method for breaking horses. Traditional means involve the use of ropes and shouting until the thing wises up. Mr Roberts deploys quiet talk and a series of horse-sensitive body postures. It sounded deliriously cranky going in. But then you saw him at work in the ring, acquiring the trust of a frisky nag by walking towards and away from it and getting a saddle on it inside 30 minutes.

Mr Roberts has worked on horses belonging to the Queen and has had some success in calming racehorses who have shown themselves repeatedly alarmed by the stalls at the starting line. He is clearly a gifted man whose potential services to sport have thus far merely been hinted at and there's still plenty of time before the new football season starts, to put him in a room with Manchester United's Roy Keane.