Sport on TV: Mountain of a show out of molehill of a sport

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The Independent Online
YOU can be fairly sure that a sport is trendy when the presenters are wearing the same gear as the competitors. It is hard, for example, to imagine Murray Walker anchoring the grand prix coverage in overalls and crash helmet, or Steve Ryder sitting outside the Augusta National clubhouse in houndstooth slacks. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is as hip as it gets, and the presenters of Board Stupid (C4) do not just bring us the action, they strut the style as well.

Dressed from top to toe in the latest branded mountain wear, Phil Young and Wendy Douglas look even cooler than the alpine backdrop, which is probably just as well, since as soon as they open their mouths, their presentational skills are straight out of hospital radio. Not that they are required to do a great deal of talking. In snowboarding, it is the doing, and above all the posing, which is important.

This week we were introduced to the intricacies - such as they are - of the half-pipe, which is nothing more than a U-shaped ditch hacked out of a mountainside. The boarders zig-zag from side to side, performing extravagant airborne twists and turns at every opportunity until they either reach the bottom or everyone is, well, bored stupid.

This is not to say that snowboarding is not a grown-up sport. It will be in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, next month, and more impressively still, it has existed for less than 10 years, but has already fractured into at least three would-be governing bodies who loathe each other with a vengeance. It took boxing many decades to reach a similar stage of development. It is also perfectly pleasant to watch, especially in the Board Stupid format, which is little more than a series of pop videos with the occasional live performance - this week it was Finley Quaye and the Wannadies - thrown in.

The annoying thing, though, is that while it all looks fairly clever in a beach-bummy sort of way, there is no way to tell whether any particular competitor is being a whole lot cleverer than the next high-school drop- out down the half-pipe. "How are they judged?" an Austrian competition organiser was asked in an earlier programme.

"It is to do with airstyle," he replied, and while you suspected he was talking about the jumps and twists, he might just as easily have meant whatever it is they have up top when they remove their woolly hats.

After all, as one devotee insisted several times, "snowboarding is not a sport, it is a lifestyle". Which sets it apart from figure skating, which is not a sport, period, or at any rate, no more so than line dancing or synchronised swimming. Somehow, though, the European championships made it on to prime-time BBC, and with A-list presenters at rinkside too, in the shape of Sue Barker and Barry Davies.

Normally, you would think this more of a Dougie Donnelly sort of assignment, but the Beeb must now be so short of proper sport that it can afford to waste Barker and company on what is little more than an extension of the panto season. Anyone who had not sampled skating since T & D retired (in other words, the entire British population) would have found that nothing much had changed while they were away. The outfits still look like they were picked up at a wardrobe clearance after Blake's 7 was axed. They persist in playing the music on a pre-War gramophone. And it still looks as if barely a single living soul has turned up to watch.

Oh, and the Austrian judge still gives the Brits measly marks, though precisely what grudge he holds against us remains a mystery. "Only 5.1 from the Austrian" is as much of a mantra at skating championships as "Royaume-Uni, nul points" come Eurovision time, but at least in the Song Contest, score-settling is a long and noble tradition, and you always know that, for instance, there is more chance of peace breaking out in Cyprus than there is of the Greek judges giving a single point to Turkey. The best idea of all might be to combine the two, and force the skaters to perform to their national entry. The Norwegians might get a mark or two, and above all it would get two deadly-dull events out of the way in one go.

The World Swimming Championships (Eurosport) were little better when it came to excitement, a fact which even the organisers seemed to have acknowledged by positioning a stage complete with big band and dancers at one end of the pool. The solution here might once have been to introduce betting, since the one from China would have been a fairly confident nap in most of the finals. And if there were two of them, you could really clean up by doing the dual forecast.

There was an unfortunate hint of predictability after the cracking game from the South African league which formed part of last Sunday's Live And Dangerous (C5). There were 21 black players on the pitch, but the Man of the Match award went to the blond centre-half. It has proved impossible to substantiate rumours that the person doing the judging was a certain Mr Johan van der Motson.

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