Box Seat

The Olympics: Great sport, terrible television

Every four years, we all become dull, jingoistic to the point of militarism and utterly convinced of our expertise, writes Ed Cumming

Monday 09 August 2021 09:51 BST
Needle time: Tom Daley knits from the sidelines at the Tokyo Games
Needle time: Tom Daley knits from the sidelines at the Tokyo Games (Getty)

Sorry if you are hearing this for the first time, but there has been an Olympics on. You know: running and ping pong and golf. In Tokyo. Japan? Don’t worry if it’s not ringing a bell; as I write this, the Games are on their last lap. You don’t have to think about them for another three years.

Still, it’s strange that Tokyo managed to slip under the radar as easily as it has. Previous iterations have dominated the news to the extent that it was possible to forget the world was still turning. London 2012, in particular, was as close to the Ancient Roman spirit of down-tools-and-head-to-the-circus as Britain will ever experience. Can you remember a single other thing that happened that year? No. You just remember the Mobot and the ginger bloke doing the long jump.

If Tokyo has passed you by, you haven’t missed much. I don’t mean the sporting heroism. There’s been the usual wholesome mix of triumph and heartbreak to go with the travesty of “banned” Russia operating under the cryptic codename of “Russian Olympic Committee”.

But, as TV, it has been a strange and often sorry spectacle. Partly it’s the time difference. When the Olympics were in London, most of the events coincided with your office hours, the better for bunking off. Rio was even better, starting a few hours later so you could do a couple of hours of work before bedding in with the badminton. By comparison, the action in Tokyo has crept onto our screens in the middle of the night and then slunk off after breakfast, like a shameful bootycaller. The Japanese people didn’t want it in the first place. It descended on the city like a big virusy spaceship, diverting resources and attention away from a dire Covid situation.

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With only a smattering of fans at the venues, all the attention has been on the TV coverage. The athletes know this, which is why they have been gurning for the cameras even more than normal. As a case in point, see Tom Daley’s knitting in the stands, a desperate attempt to salvage his reputation with the British public. I see you, Daley. Despicable.

The added pressure on broadcasters couldn’t have happened at a worse time. With the bulk of the TV rights sold off to the Discovery network, those craving the full experience have had to subscribe to Eurosport. The BBC has had to make do with just two sports at a time, thin scrapings from the American table. One of TV’s strengths is the way it relentlessly marches forward. Every year there are more cameras, higher definition, more impressive computer wizardry.

Instead, the Olympics, at least for British viewers, has gone backwards. London and Rio were a symphony of multi-channel functionality, and all the more immersive for it. If you wanted to watch all of the canoe heats, you could watch all the canoe heats. The BBC spoilt us and now they’re paying for it. I didn’t want to mind about horse dancing. My life was complete before I minded about horse dancing. But thanks to the BBC, I now mind about horse dancing. It ought to serve as a lesson to broadcasting corporations around the world: don’t start something you can’t finish.

At times it has looked like the Tokyo footage was being beamed in from a distant space colony, one MB per second. At this rate of backwards progress, the Games from Paris will be on Ceefax and by “LA2028”, a lone carrier pigeon will bring the news that, continuing the rowing team’s own reverse progress, the men’s eight has gone down with all hands.

Given the commercial restrictions, the BBC was probably dammed whatever it did. All the same, it’s hard not to feel that they have bogged it. Rather than live coverage, the producers have favoured interminable studio segments, with a CGI Bladerunner-style Tokyo projected behind them. Why watch the live sport when could you have ageing ex-pros chat about it instead, like a kind of multi-event Soccer Saturday. Hazel Irvine is a fine broadcaster, but I have spent more time with her over the past fortnight than with my family. Understandably, many of the pundits looked uneasy to find themselves in a green screen studio. It can’t be easy to praise Laura Kenny’s resilience while wondering if you are becoming part of the Marvel Comic Universe.

BBC presenters in a promotional shot for their Olympics coverage
BBC presenters in a promotional shot for their Olympics coverage (BBC/Nick Eagle)

Still, we can’t entirely blame the broadcaster. The Olympics invariably brings out the worst in the viewer. In front of sports we don’t understand, we all become instant pub bores, jingoistic to the point of militarism and utterly convinced of our expertise. True, the commentators understand this and play up to it. “Ooh, he’s emptied the pool,” said Leon Taylor as some non-GB diver’s ankle strayed fractionally off-line as he entered the water. “Yes,” I thought, reaching for the Bombay Mix. “That bastard has emptied the pool.”

In truth, something about the sight of all these men and women in peak condition fulfilling their dreams brings out a streak of misanthropic self-loathing. One man’s inspiration is another’s wind-up. Tiring of the diving, I reached for the controller to switch to something else, but nothing else was on. Bloody BBC, I thought, why couldn’t they pay for the rights. Why is the licence fee so expensive? Why do they keep cutting to the studio? Why isn’t there more analysis? Why is it so obsessed with Team GB? Why do they hate Britain? I’m sick to the back teeth of the Olympics but I wish there had been more of it on TV. Good riddance and I can’t believe we have to wait another three years.

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