The thing that makes the Boat Race unique is that there is one winner, and one loser. Ask anyone who has competed: it is one of the most empty feelings they will ever experience. Eight months of toil, getting up early, going to bed late, fitting in academic work as well as the physical effort of rowing. All that is focused on one day, one race, 18 minutes. If you win, it’s the most extraordinary feeling. If you come second, you’ve lost.
That’s what’s so brutal about it. In those moments, on television, words become almost unnecessary. It depends whether you are doing TV or radio of course. In radio, there can be no pauses or gaps; it sounds as if something has gone wrong. You have to keep up a flow of positions, colour, description: you are the listener’s eyes and ears.
There is a different skill to television. In TV you have to add to the pictures. A commentator friend of mine, Simon Brotherton, who covers cycling and football, says in TV you say half as much, but need twice the vocabulary. I’ve always remembered that. The advent of social media has given people licence to rant and abuse. Once upon a time you would just turn it off or turn it down.
Now people feel the need to tell people they are horrible or useless or far worse. I used to receive some extraordinarily abusive stuff when I was commentating on Formula One, which I couldn’t comprehend. But when I stopped, the positive comments far outnumbered the negative ones. Those who were sorry to see me go had just never felt the need to say anything before. Murray Walker was a big act to follow, and he will always cast a long shadow in Formula One.
Likewise golf with Peter Alliss, tennis with Dan Maskell, football with Barry Davies and John Motson. They became giants of their craft in a much kinder era. You could probably find people who hated Murray Walker or found Peter Alliss annoying, but they didn’t use social media to explode. People are more demanding now. These greats of the past is that they were all on the BBC. That’s where sport was. There is now so much sport on television, on so many channels, and although there are some great commentators working today that era of broadcasting giants has gone.
As told to James Gill
Rowing: the Boat Races Sat 4.15pm BBC1, 4.50pm Radio 5 Live Sp Ex