Sport on TV: Day the viewers came first in the marathon

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There was a time when the appearance of a big sporting event on television was the cue for celebration: liquor and foodstuffs brought in to the house, children and animals sent in the opposite direction, phone off the hook, curtains drawn... lovely, a treat. Then, match over, normality resumed. But there is so much good sport on television these days that normality is finding it increasingly hard to get a look-in.

Take last Sunday: a day of rest, a time for sober reflection - not a bit of it. There was live sport as far as the eye could see, and breakfast was spent frantically annotating the television page of the Sunday Review with a magic marker to come up with a practical personal schedule. One thing was clear. It was going to an exhausting day. It was going to be a bloody marathon.

For a start, there was the bloody marathon, and for a change there was a fascinating race to watch in between the segments of cabaret with its cast of costumed masochists. The Comedy Rhino was prominent this year, which leads one to speculate that there may be trends in amusing marathon gear. Are there specialist retailers, experts in the porous qualities of papier-mache, alert to the latest fashions in ticklesome attire? "The pantomime cow, if I may say so, sir, is a little passe, a shade de trop. Now, if sir would like to try, perhaps, the giant latex parakeet?"

Poor Liz McColgan seemed to think that the yelling crowds were cheering her home as she made her break for the line. But in fact what they were shouting, in the finest pantomime tradition, was "Behind you!" Her tears of defeat were moving: it was amazing that after 26-and-a-bit miles she still had the liquid reserves to produce them.

11.50am, and the fatigued viewer rehydrated with a beer and topped up the important blood sugar levels with a couple of biscuits. Time for the first of the FA Cup semi-finals, a fine game for neutral fans, and a resolute display by Franck Leboeuf ample compensation for those who had not had time to put the roast beef in the oven.

2pm: Grab assortment of snacks in place of missing roast, restock rehydration compartment of fridge. Technically, there was now a clash: further live coverage of the Marathon on BBC1, Chesterfield v Middlesbrough live on Sky Sports. Decide that Bryan Robson's outfit has more dramatic potential than hyperventilating middle managers in Mickey Mouse outfits. This proves to be the case.

4pm: Extra time looms. Managers circle their knackered players, lifting spirits. "There's two teams dead on their feet out there," Andy Gray noted. "Two teams who are absolutely shattered." Yes, yes - but what about the viewers? The extra half-hour is fantastic entertainment, and as Middlesbrough's nemesis popped up to prove that not everyone called James Hewitt is a cad and a bounder, the nation's couch potatoes sank back on to their cushions, sated.

Only to realise that over on ITV, the cars were lining up on the grid for the Argentinian Grand Prix. "You've seen the stage show," Jim Rosenthal said, standing at the circuit entrance, "you've bought the album and you've seen the movie. Well, here we are." Terrific: Evita - the Motor Race.

Nothing of the sort, thank goodness, but a cracking contest marred by the director's inexplicable fondness for crowd scenes - perhaps the old Peronist influence still at work. At the moment of the highest drama, with head-case-turned-hero Eddie Irvine poised to swoop past the upset- tummied Jacques Villeneuve at 200mph, the director cut to a group of Ferrari fans waving flags. In the commentary box, Martin Brundle gave vent to a bellow of rage and incredulity. Murray Walker, who has become used to such idiocy, carried on blithely. ITV and Chrysalis, the production company, have thrown a lot of money at their grand prix show: is it too much to ask them to spend a few bob on a director who can read a race?

As Villeneuve put down the champagne and headed for the loo, viewers put down their glasses and did likewise. Oh, the relief. But no sooner had the cistern refilled than Eddie Hemmings and Stevo were gushing over the evening's Super League action on Sky.

The game was probably very entertaining, but this viewer had marked it down as a narrow window of opportunity into which to cram the normal business of Sunday. Oldham beat Paris by the odd point: the viewer speed-read the papers, put the washing on, watered the window-box and attempted to re- establish diplomatic relations with the family. Because at 9pm it was back to the BBC, and back to Augusta.

There is a theory - surely propounded in more than one house last Sunday evening - that Tiger Woods's progress towards his first major was lacking in drama as a sporting event. This was true insofar as defeat became less and less likely with every majestic drive. But this was history in the making, and to switch off before his final putt would have been tantamount to sitting down a yard from the finish of the marathon. Now, what's on today?

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