Peter Hoffmann: Sports commentary is a marathon art not a sprint

Sports commentator David Coleman

Sports commentator David Coleman

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An associate commented that Tim Hutchings was the best athletics commentator on the box.

My first thought was ‘No, he’s not’. My second was Steve Cram’s better. Who could forget his magnificent commentary as Kelly Holmes battled it out against Maria Mutola down the home straight in the Athens Olympic 800 metres final?

I like the notion of instinct over intellect, but it begs the question just what makes for an excellent commentator?

I think we’re looking for someone who significantly adds to the occasion. At the most basic level you can’t escape from having the voice. Although it’s going against the common view, I don’t like Tim Hutchings’ commentaries. I admire his knowledge, but he doesn’t have the voice – it’s too thin. Michael Johnson has the stentorian voice; unlike Andrew Cotter he has the experience of what’s involved and how athletes feel; he also recognises the sense of occasion and has a good sensibility; and he is prepared to tell it like it is. Aside from the voice you need to be able to bring something extra to the table: what to say and importantly what not to say. For television you don’t need to overly describe the obvious, i.e. what’s happening, because we can all see that for ourselves.

Peter Alliss is a voice for the ages and perversely even more so in this era of political correctness. Whilst he’s from the Beeb’s golden generation of Maskell; McClaren; et al where he’s different is he is unusually opinionated. Commentary has changed over the past decade. There’s less neutrality at play. That can appeal or irritate. I warm to Eddie Butler and Brian Moore at rugby who are great double act – especially when they disagree. David Coleman was opinionated too and despite the Colemanballs over the years he was rather magnificent. I recall him commentating on our own David Jenkins on the last leg of a relay or on Coe v Ovett in Moscow … “Ovett those blue eyes like chips of ice…”

One of the key issues producers have to grapple with is finding the ideal blend.

Ex-athletes often don’t have the voice or are too concerned with playing a bland bat. However the professionals fall down too. Last month I listened to Andrew Cotter commentate on Laviai Neilson victory in the UK Championships 400 metres against our own Eilidh Doyle. He described the race. He had the statistics. But he missed the significance of what was happening out on the track. Not only does he not know how it feels to race at international level and what’s involved, but he missed the changing of the guard.

Before the race I was thinking it could be significant – if Neilson beat Doyle for the first time, Doyle might never win against her much younger opponent again. It took Cram to come into rescue the situation and take control from Cotter. It’s a matter of opinion. But I know whose opinion I like to hear.

Peter Hoffmann was an international athlete and is an author currently completing the final volume of an Edinburgh Trilogy.

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