TV: Grand National 2012

Me watching sport is turning into a habit.

First the University boat race and now the Grand National. At this rate, there’s a very real chance I’ll be glued to the Olympics (given that I’ll almost certainly have to work at home all the time the Olmypics are on if public transport is as badly affected as is claimed).

Me watching sport

I did place a few bets. None of them came in for me. Synchronised dropped out reasonably early on and amid all the raised voices at the end of the race, it was difficult to work out where Ballybrigg ended up. I am £20 lighter as a result and relieved it’s over too.

A tense sporting event.

TV: University Boat Race 2012 BBC

Perfect TV

I don’t watch much sport on TV. At the moment I’m doubtful whether I’ll watch much of the sporting events in the Olympics this year (although I wonder whether I might be persuaded by the gymnastics).

But there’s something about the University Boat Race which pulls me in each year.

It whispers aspiration to the middle classes. You’re allowed to drink when you watch it. And although it reminds those of us who pursued further education that despite going to university, there are still only two establishments which count: Oxford and Cambridge, the boat race maintains its appeal because it’s the easiest of spectator sports.

And then there’s the promise of the potential drama associated with live television. This year’s boat race delivered it, quite unexpectedly. Most of us settled down with our alcoholic drink of choice expecting a speed past various river locations in West London. What we got instead was a race interrupted by a man swimming across the race, a broken oar, a restarted race and a rower needing urgent medical attention at the end of it.

As sporting events go, I was gripped. Not least because my fast-emerging favourite broadcaster Claire Balding succeeded in reflecting the mood of both participants and spectators so well. Everyone looked shocked. The majority of those on screen at the end looked ever so slightly sad too.

And in that respect they reflected how I felt too. In the space of an hour and a half I found myself connecting with people I’d never met and would probably never socialise with and found myself caring about something I’d hitherto only enjoyed for superficial reasons.

Claire Balding talks to Cambridge's David Nelson

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Sport or Arts?

What does Britain do best, sport or the arts?

Initially, I mistook the debate title for ‘what’s best: sport or the arts?’ Which of course is a no-brainer of a question. The arts wins hands down. Every time. Obviously. But then I’m bound to say that.

I’m in no way sporty. If I watch any sport, it’s tennis. And if I’m forced to watch anything like football say, the only way I’ll make it anywhere near bearable is by turning the 90 minute ordeal into something which might loosely be referred to as ‘talent spotting’. Their talents with the ball don’t normally figure in my assessment. And, given that at the point of writing this I can think of possibly only one eye-catching specimen on the pitch, it’s not difficult to confess that football and sport in general is normally something I steer well clear of.

And therein lies sport’s problem, in my opinion. In this country at least, sport means football. Sport’s image seems to be shaped by football. In some cases it might even be tarnished by football’s image. At least that’s the way I observe it from my specially roped-off area signposted “Reserved for The Arts”.

At the same time however, I see the same passion for the game football fans have as I share whenever the Eurovision bus rocks up in town. You’d think on that basis I’d be able to map one experience onto an understanding of the other. I don’t. I can’t.

One is needless, pointless entertainment. And the other is someone else’s party. One I’m not invited to. I’m just never going to get excited about the possibility or the reality of a goal being scored.

Even when I reluctantly find myself involved in the progress of England in the World Cup, I’m not actually involved in the sport per se. I’m more interested in getting to the next level. It’s the win, not how we get the win which I’ll latch onto come the World Cup.

And because I don’t get football it seems even more unlikely I’ll follow rugby or swimming or darts. Darts is a sport, isn’t it?

I know. I know what you’re thinking. There’s not much to understand. It’s not that alien. It’s not a different language. It’s not difficult. I probably just need to go to my local (wherever that is) and watch it with a crowd to experience the thrill of it. Or maybe I need to go to a match. Even though that communal experience is the opposite to the inward reflection I indulge in whenever I come into contact with the arts, I know that attending some kind of sporting event in person is the least I can do. If sports fans I know are prepared to venture into a concert hall then I’m sure I could make the effort and go watch a football match.

That fig-leaf laid to one side however, I still didn’t buy the claims made by Matthew Syed and Pat Nevin ‘for sport’ during the joint Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live live debate that sport was more inclusive than art. Such a cri du coeur did sound a little like a slightly politer version of the age old criticism that the arts is elitist. And there’s nothing more annoying to someone who derives immense pleasure from the arts than hearing cries of elitism.

But tonight’s debate did do something quite unexpected. Something a bit weird.

At the end of what at first I had thought was an intensely disappointing event on the internet (it seems no-one wanted to participate in discussion on the internet of the kind BBC Question Time gets week after week), I found myself wandering back to my hotel room with a slightly adjusted view on sports fans.

Listening to former football player Pat Nevin and Matthew Syed make erudite cases for sport, I was left with a new insight difficult to shake even if it did reveal how narrow-minded I might have been before. It was as though I’d been given a primer into how intelligent sportsmen think. That was enlightening. I don’t know I’ve ever heard that before. I’d had my preconceptions shaken up a bit. I’d been tackled. I’d been thrown to the ground, landed in the mud but – most importantly of all – helped up by my tackler too.

And before you say it, I don’t think I could have got that insight merely listening to BBC 5 Live more. I’d hear people commentating on sport. I might hear people speculating about sport. But what I wouldn’t hear is what sport means to them. That’s what I heard indirectly from the mouths of Nevin and Syed. That’s important. That’s what I need to hear as an arts fan to connect with them.

If you were to over-simply this blog post you might (if you were being especially disingenuous towards me) assume that I’d thought all sportsmen were thick and didn’t think about their passion in the same way I did about mine.

Of course. That would be to over-simplify. And let’s be clear: ‘thick’ is a dirty word too. A deeply unpleasant one. No, I didn’t think that before. The point was, I didn’t feel like I understood sport. I wanted some kind of deep understanding (or justification) in order for me to feel as though I could connect with it. Nevin and Syed effected an introduction where that was concerned. For me, they opened negotiations admirably and decently.

But back to the point of the debate? What does Britain do best? Sport or the arts? It does both very well, satisfying audiences up and down the country and meeting the expectations of those audiences admirably.

What Britain needs to work on however, is making sure that sport and the arts work a little harder at understanding each other. By which I mean me. I should probably work harder at understanding sport a little bit more.

After all, there’s got to be more to just footballers than what they look like, hasn’t there?

:: Listen to the joint BBC Five Live / BBC Radio 3 debate from the Free Thinking Festival on BBC iPlayer or via BBC Programmes

:: The picture at the top of this post is from the BBC website. It’s of the Millennium Bridge outside the Sage, Gateshead.

Surely I’m in with a chance now …

News just in – or is it speculation or rumour or somesuch? – from @mylesrun about the BBC’s forthcoming coverage of the Olympics in 2012:

Apparently the BBC will broadcast (via one conduit or another) all 6,000 hours of the 2012 Olympics. That is A LOT.

Indeed it is a lot. I’m very nearly bristling with excitement reading @mylesrun’s tweet. Here’s why.

Given my ongoing efforts to further my career in broadcasting (I may not have made that aspiration obvious on this blog although I was rather hoping the incessant video production work would give the game away), such staggering numbers of hours output is good news for me.

I mean, really. Are you honestly telling me that those 6000 hours will be stuffed full of breathtaking feats of human achievement? There’s only so much record breaking attempts which the viewing public can bear after all. Some of those hours have surely got to be given over to presentation or reporting or something.

Who knows, maybe the 2012 Olympics might provide me with the perfect opportunity. My long-awaited break? I suppose I ought to start researching one or two Olympic sports in the meantime. You know, just in case.

And in case anyone’s wondering I’m not soliciting people’s opinions about whether this is good idea or not.*

* I’m being mildly self-deprecating.

We got through

It wasn’t altogether unsurprising to observe a number of people under the influence of alcohol stumble their way through crowds of World Cup deniers at Waterloo station.

One man – desperately shovelling a sausage and chips into his mouth as he negotiated the escalator – narrowly escaped an incident with the tired commuters behind him when he first mis-stepped and then fell back onto them.

As it happens, it wasn’t that much of an inconvenience to anyone. It didn’t even fuel my usual reliance on sneering condescension. (Such a trait is reserved solely for the Eurovision.)

In fact, contrary to my poor attempt at distancing myself from England’s crucial first round World Cup match with Slovenia this afternoon, it was actually rather nice to see so many happy drunks around.

Happy drunks are nice. They magnify what we all feel regardless of whether or not we like the supposedly beautiful game. Without even realising it, those happy drunks sum up the heady concoction of disappointment, desperation and subsequent relief we all experience to a greater or lesser extent.

England has got through to the next round. This doesn’t mean it’s all downhill from now on. In fact, I’m almost certain the next match will be just as stressful for us back home as it’s potentially mortifying for all those fans who’ve shelled out thousands of pounds to be in South Africa for the tournament. If they end up facing intense disappointment I’d advocate they avoid the bars and do some sightseeing instead.

But if we do get through the next round, England and its followers have a bit of a problem. Considering the strength of feeling whipped up or reflected by the media (depending on how you look at it), quite how any future England successes in the 2010 tournament will be explained away is a tough one.

Because even in my fantastical mind, I find it difficult to believe that the England team can turn things around to the extent they’ll need to to satisfy the most hardened of football fans. England will be tarnished by the first week and a bit of the tournament. Miracles don’t eclipse that kind of bad press. England going further in the tournament will always be ‘by the skin of our teeth’.

And I can draw on evidence of this from an exchange in the changing rooms at the gym at the end of the match.

“Did we win?” I asked the man decked out in his England strip tied up his laces.

“Oh yes,” he smiled, “We won.”

“That’s good then. We all got through. Good.”

“It wasn’t a convincing win though.”

“My God,” I said without a moments thought. “You football fans are never happy, are you?”