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The men behind the mic: meet the commentators covering our summer of sport

Should our sport commentators be patriotic or impartial?

Published: Saturday, 2nd July 2016 at 9:05 am

Four years ago, for three heady weeks at London 2012, it felt as if we were all – athletes, spectators and even commentators – on the same team. But that wasn’t strictly true: BBC commentators aren’t supposed to be taking saides.


“We are definitely briefed not to say ‘we’ and ‘us’,” says Clare Balding, who headed up the corporation’s coverage of 2012 and will be the star presenter when the team flies out to Rio next month. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t get excited about British success because of course we do, but a lot of other broadcasters who watched our coverage when they were in London for 2012 said we were much broader than their home nations.

“In the US they’ll focus on an American who finishes third rather than the winner. Whereas look at the profile of Usain Bolt, Chad le Clos, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps and Anna Meares at the last Games. Big names from other countries get a big profile on the BBC because we’re less partisan.”

As our bumper summer of sport gathers pace, with the Tour de France starting, we asked the men behind the mic to tell us how they do it

Home-grown hero: Andrew Castle is behind the BBC mic at Wimbledon

How easy is it to stay impartial? If you’d asked me that a few years ago, before Andy Murray, I’d have said, “Easy.” Now, it’s a more difficult line to tread.

When Andy was about to win Wimbledon in 2013, after 77 years of not having a Wimbledon men’s champion, having been a British number one myself and been disappointed a few times — it was very emotional. But if Djokovic or Nadal or Federer play better, I’m always delighted to witness that.

Of course, I want the British player to win, but you have to tell it the way it is. If Andy’s having a moan, I wouldn’t be much of a commentator if I didn’t say, “Andy’s grumbling, and it’s not doing him any favours.” I want him to win, but I’m not a cheerleader. You have to maintain a bit of distance.

The standard instructions are that it’s not “us” and “them”, but you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t betray a little bit of that. You have to reflect that it’s a great British victory.

Coverage of Wimbledon continues every day from 11am on BBC2.

Brilliant Bradley: Ned Boulting reports on the Tour de France for ITV

The Tour de France used to be a mysteriously foreign event, where the British were peripheral. But Bradley Wiggins has changed all that.

By and large our viewers celebrate a British success with just a degree more passion, and we have a duty to reflect that. Unconsciously, the voices of our commentary team ratchet up about five or ten per cent celebrating a British success. But we treat British riders with exactly the same scrutiny. No one’s ever told me not to say “us” or “we”, but I wouldn’t even consider it — it’s “them”.

Occasionally, at the big events, coverage can feel a little bit like waving the Union Jack. One of the things I treasure about the Tour is that cycling is a continental sport. Lately, perhaps, we have focused too much on British riders, but right now there are pretty good extenuating circumstances.

Coverage of the Tour de France starts Sat at 11am from ITV4.

Football Frenzy: John Murray covers Euro 2016 for Radio 5 Live

This is the first major tournament where I’ve commentated on England matches, and I have felt differently about it compared with friendlies. I've felt more invested in it, but I don’t want to be in a position where I sound like the commentator from Iceland, when he lost control watching his side beat Austria.

It’s the BBC line to be impartial. We’re all journalistically trained, we’ve all had it drummed into us. But there is a proviso in football, as with any sport, that we are also British. The majority of people listening want British teams to do well. You can lean towards the British team in terms of how you sound and how you feel.

If you listen back to England’s opening group match, for example, I was commentating when Russia equalised right at the end. I think you could probably detect a tinge of disappointment.

I would never, ever say “we”, when referring to England, though. If you start doing that, then what do you do when England play Wales? That crosses the line. I covered the England v Wales game, and didn’t find it hard to remain impartial.

Whether it’s England v Wales or Wales v Northern Ireland, it’s essential for me to remain even-handed.
I would cut our Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues some slack. England have reached tournament after tournament, whereas for Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s a brand-new experience for this generation. It would be asking too much for them not to display their emotion.


Euro 2016 quarter-finals are on Saturday and Sunday, and semi-finals on Wednesday and Thursday, on BBC1 and ITV (k/o 8pm)


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