Sport on TV: One small step for darts, one leap back by Gooch

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The Independent Online
A WEEK of contrast - of one astonishing technical innovation and one appalling intellectual leap back towards the dark ages.

Pioneers first. In a scientific advance only marginally less exciting than the Apollo 11 moon landing, Sky Sports brought the slow-motion action replay to darts. Unbelievable. Relive the excitement as the darts fly like . . . well, like darts into the treble 20. Enjoy again the boggle-faced reaction of the joyous darter, turning clench-fisted on the Blackpool oche to hiss 'Yesss]' or rather, in slow motion, 'Yuuuurrrrrrsssss'. To adapt the greatest Colemanball of all time: there's only one word for that - magic television.

And then, just when the future was looking so bright, along came Graham Gooch to rub the shine off it. If you live outside London, you don't get to see Carlton TV's Sport in Question (Monday), a sports version of BBC 1's political forum, Question Time, with the part of Jonathan Dimbleby played, with slightly diminishing returns, by Saint and Greavsie. And lucky you. There can be few greater incentives for leaving the capital on the next train (strike permitting). Some time ago, to encourage business relocation, there was a billboard advertisement bearing the slogan 'Rush hour in Milton Keynes' and showing a picture of an appealingly deserted roundabout. If the campaign were to be revived now, the slogan would read 'Sport in Question in Milton Keynes' and the picture would be a still from Prisoner: Cell Block H, or whatever they get instead.

Frankly, no audience is too limited for Sport in Question. In fact, on the evidence of last week's debate, the programme's signal should be further attenuated until it can be received only within the confines of the snug bar in the Old Stoat, Chelmsford, or wherever Graham Gooch goes to formulate his 'ideas' on women and sport.

Funnily enough, I hadn't been expecting the truly leg-crossingly embarrassing moment to come from Gooch - not with Charlie George on the panel. When someone in the audience asked everyone what they thought about women commentating on sport on television, it was just so predictable that George would burble something barely grammatical about how they should be restricted to tennis or swimming (you know, the pretty sports, the ones they understand), that it barely had the power to shock. (George, incidentally, now works at the Arsenal Museum at Highbury, and may well have found those sentiments on an old piece of paper under a dusty statue of Ted Drake.)

But then, in came Gooch, recalling, with a slow shake of the head, how a woman (he couldn't remember her name, but she was, he said, captain of the England women's cricket team) had once written a piece in the Daily Telegraph, saying where she thought the men were going wrong against Australia. Gooch's point was, he didn't mind criticism, but to be told how to play by women . . . well, he drew the line at that.

Even if it isn't terrible that Gooch doesn't know the name of the England women's cricket captain (Karen Smithies), it is certainly arrogant of him to sound so casually unapologetic about it. And anyway, given that right now you wouldn't necessarily back an England XI to defeat convincingly even an Apollo 11, this is hardly the time for English cricketers to be refusing advice - from men, women or even little pixies dancing out of the hedgerow.

The woman on the Sport in Question panel was Shelley Webb, whose patience in the face of all this was extraordinary. Mostly she laughed. Her point was that the only questions really worth asking about a sports commentator are: are they informed and are they any good? You would like to think that any enlightened, mixed-sex television commentary team of the future would involve Shelley Webb. But for as long as your Grahams and your Georges are in operation, why should she want anything to do with it?

As last week's A Whole Different Ball Game (BBC 2, Tuesday) informed us, in Cuba one of the chief baseball commentators is a woman, Julia Osendi. (Strewth, eh Graham? They'll be playing the damn sport next.) Osendi told us how important baseball is to the people of Communist Cuba. It helps them cope with the absence of food and work. Some of the Cubans interviewed showed signs of the humour-loss which can follow from being hitched to drab productivity schedules. Does sex before baseball ruin your swing? 'There are no figures available,' said a club representative. (But presumably it's nowhere near as disruptive as sex during baseball.)

For some reason, all sports documentaries set in a foreign land feel honour-bound to declare that they are in a country in which sport is 'a religion'. Ironically, in many of these places, it is, in fact, religion which is 'a religion'. That's not the case in Cuba but, even so, perhaps it would be nice some time to see a documentary which admitted it was in a country where sport was only a casual interest, on a level with shopping, driving and visiting relatives.