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26 May 2012

Olympic Challenge

Some things in life are self-evident. Quantum cats aside, you can't be both alive and dead. You can't be in a committed relationship whilst also looking for love. And you can't, at one and the same time, be both a journalist and a publicist.

Yet this is the strange position the BBC has found itself in with the Olympic Games coming to London this summer. Getting the balance right is going to be a real challenge for the corporation.

Let me first put some cards on the table. I'm not a sports fan.

I don't 'get' the passion that surrounds team sports, especially football. At the age of 53 I've never been to a soccer game. I was the kid who came last in compulsory cross country, which probably colours the attitude a bit, and I do understand there are people who really enjoy the thrills and rivalries of professional sport, however dearly they pay for that privilege through season tickets and the regular purchases of shirts.

I'm happy that other people get pleasure from their chosen sport, even if I'm not a part of that world.

When it comes to the Olympics I accept the world's biggest sports day makes great television. If athletic records are going to be smashed, if we can watch the outcome of years of dedicated training decided in seconds over a hundred metres of track; well, that's what we all pay our telly tax for.  The tears, the joy, the jingoism, the sponsor's logo in the picture. It's all there. Down there. In London.

Aye, there's the rub.

All the real excitement happens in a stadium in Greenwich and in a few associated venues predominantly (yachting apart) within the M25.

For a punter in Leeds, the Olympics might as well be in Beijing. 

OK, I know some Chinese swimmers are practicing in Leeds and they'll be posing for pictures and they're spending a few bob in hotels and restaurants; but practicing isn't competing and no amount of hype and pretending will make that any different.

Neither will a torch relay, drawn out over two months, the crowning triumph of inclusionism, as opposed to inclusivity. A joyful, spontaneous celebration that requires the full-time attention of three specially-trained police officers just to protect the flame.

This circus, zig-zagging around the nation, combines tear-jerking schmaltz with all the gripping news appeal of a minority party's election battlebus.

Carefully-chosen torchbearers get fifteen minutes of carefully stage-managed fame. Even my favourite broadcaster, Eddie Mair, has been dragged in on the act. "Were you going to mention your brain tumour?" he asked one breathless woman last night, who'd just told PM listeners she'd given birth by Cesarean section a week ago.

I rest my case.

The problem is, in my world, no-one cares much about the London Olympics. 

I was always taught, as I now teach, that journalists and producers should reflect in their output what people are talking about in the pub, in workplaces and on the top deck of the bus. I hear a lot of talk (and read a lot of Tweets - I'm @leedsjourno) about the weather, about the price of petrol and food, last night's telly and some specifically local sporting successes. I hear some chatter about the Euro, about jobs and about the coming Diamond Jubilee. But in all honesty I hear nothing at all about the Olympics.

Yet if I turn on any BBC radio channel, or browse the BBC news website, you'd think the nation was gripped by little else.

It's almost as if an edict has gone out announcing that there must be a positive story on every station every day; 'All the doilies in the food court in the Olympic village have been made in Little Piddling'  for example, or 'Local girl's friend's teacher's best mate is preparing for Olympic glory for Khazakstan in Taekwondo'

Ultimately it comes back to a fundamental question. 

Is the BBC, as the Official Olympic Broadcaster and also Britain's state broadcaster, reporting the games or promoting the games? Watchdog or cheerleader?

I for one am becoming rather uneasy that it's the latter. Especially in a time of austerity, when perhaps those in political office believe it would be A Good Thing for the nation to cheer up a bit, there's an uncomfortable, Orwellian edge to reporting that suggests there's a lot more enthusiasm for an event than really exists.

There Shall Be Rejoicing. Let The People Be Happy.


  1. I took this view until I went to the torch relay in Ludlow on Thursday. It was a wonderful event full of spontaneous cheer. I have four memories.

    The pantechnicons. The corporate pantechnicons, complete with waving and smiling stooges, were meant to advertise Samsung, Coke & I can’t recall which bank. They were frankly naff and did nothing to promote the brands. Hurrah!

    The council. The mayor, mace holders and other dignitaries stood on a podium on the roadside. The town clerk was alongside in her barrister’s robes. A band groaned through God Save the Queen and somehow failed to put the glory into Land of Hope and Glory. The torch parade went past them in complete ignorance of their presence. It was a quintessentially English scene of light comedy that I still laugh at.

    The torch bearers. These were chosen to be ordinary people from the locality that have done more than ordinary things. I was so struck by their pride and humility, and am proud we have such people in our community.

    The crowd. There were thousands. It was a fantastic atmosphere. Cheerleaders and corporate pantechnicons were not needed. People had come to Ludlow see the torch relay and to party, and that’s just what they did.

    I went to the parade thinking “its only a bloody torch!”. I was wrong. It was a great occasion. There's a lot more enthusiasm for this event than sceptics think. I have eaten humble pie and hope you go to the #torchrelay and find the need to do so too.


  2. Prompted to read your story again as a Jubilee cheer was raised on the radio from a smallish crowd in Brighouse. Someone was carrying a teddy bear as a tribute.

    The story has now (9.30) moved on from “How excited did you feel when you saw the bunting?” to “How do you feel about the way the nation is talking about the bunting?” I think someone has been reading your blog.

  3. Hail, Citizen.
    Actually I'm a lot more sympathetic to Jubilee coverage; authentic local celebrations, teddy bears et al, might be naff in the same way jumble sales or sponsored walks make crap radio but at least they relate to spontaneous events within the community which benefit the community. Olympic cheerleading benefits LOCOG, the sponsors and -er- that's it.