SPORT ON TV : The year of foul mouths and fair deeds

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Looking BACK, you would have to concede it was a good year for swearing. Swearing had a really superb 12 months. Bleeping superb, in fact. Standards have never been so high, right from the moment in January when the former England football manage r Graham Taylor appeared on An Impossible Job with a microphone pinned inside his shell-suit. The result was the best documentary ever made about English football and a film soundtrack which, when censored for a family viewing edition, sounded like someo ne trying to get to grips with a Stylophone.

Others carried the torch of rudeness boldly forward from there. John Aldridge colourfully abused some Fifa officials on the touchline in America. You didn't need to have trained as a lip-reader to make out Paul Parker during Manchester United's humilation in Barcelona telling someone to "F*** Off". Jack Charlton even managed to get bleeped for foul language during The Salmon Run (July), an otherwise temperate, mid-evening BBC2 programme about angling. That took commitment to the cause.

Curiously, the people we had expected to hear cursing most loudly weren't the competitors but the sports controllers for the terrestrial channels. Rumours flew at the beginning of 1994 about the fatness of Sky Sports' wallet and their intention to buy out every sporting event in the world attracting an audience of 50 or more, leaving the BBC and ITV squabbling over the rights to floodlit Crazy Golf from Blackpool. In the end, the big events mostly stayed where they were and Sky had to settle for substantial chunks of rugby league and rugby union and a live exclusive on American basketball.

You wouldn't want to accuse Sky of being desperate to make a little go a long way, but this was the channel which this year introduced the slow-motion action replay to its darts coverage. Slightly more purposefully, they also stole the BBC's darts commentator of 16 years, Sid Waddell, whispering oche-side genius or prize berk depending on your point of view and hugely entertaining either way. (Sample of Sid's work from last August: "William Tell could knock an apple off yer head, but this la d could take out a processed pea.")

Still, the mystery remains: if Sky Sports have all this money, how come the programmes they spin around the events continue to be as tacky as a garden gnome? Last April in the West Indies, Sky were able to beam down to us Curtly Ambrose's six-wicket rampage and Brian Lara's extraordinary one-man band operation at the crease. Hard to make sporting moments like these ring hollow, but they managed it, flitting away from the field of play, obstructing the rhythm of the game in the name of "colour" and "loca l interest".

To watch the opening of the present tour in Australia was to see an amazing transformation. No shots of women in small clothes with suggestive ice cream cornets. No sad Brits with boxer shorts on their heads, doing the lambada badly in the stands. Instead, plain cricket - the bowler's run-in, the long walk back to the pavilion, all undisturbed. But that was because the pictures were coming from Australia's Channel 9.

The big British terrestrial battle took place during the World Cup finals and turned rapidly into a walkover for the BBC. ITV holed themselves up in a bunker in Dallas where their panellists sweated and glowed and revealed themselves to be chiefly hopeless when the heat was on. Denis Law won no prizes for analysis but did reveal himself to be pretty nifty at repeating the question and also picked up several big awards for gurning.

The front man, Matthew Lorenzo, confidently informed us early on that the World Cup was being seen by 30 billion people, which is actually 25 billion more people than there are in the world and some 28 billion wide of the mark. It was a little hard to find him reliable after that. And up in the commentary box, a miserable Alan Parry proposed a ban on the Mexican wave because he found it "distracting".

The BBC team, however, felt more like us; they were at home, like we were, watching it on the telly. Meanwhile, their commentators, who were in America, sounded just so pleased to be there. Barry Davies, justly in the ascendant, said it best: "such entertainment, such fun".

If there was any trend to be observed last year, it was in the way the methods of the documentary are slowly entering live sports coverage. There were microphones in the ring in Las Vegas when Foreman beat Moorer, and they picked up his trainer, ahead ofthe ninth: "You gotta put this guy down - you're behind, baby." And there are microphones out on the wicket in Australia, taped to the stumps or strapped to the batsman's pads or somewhere. They bring us the umpire's bark and the bowler's groan. We can be sure this time that Michael Atherton has nothing in his pockets because if he did we would have heard it by now.

The coverage goes on getting closer and closer until we can stare deep into sport's pores. And in the process, the coverage approximates less and less to the experience of being there. Maybe it's too late now to make a plea for the retention of a little mystery. The cameras already take us deep into the tunnel and before long we'll be in the dressing- room, the communal bath, the players' bar, the BMW home, cursing like troupers all the way.