Lesley Riddoch: Aunty Beeb does Olympics proud
GAMES coverage brought world beaters into our homes via the best presenters, pundits and ordinary people, writes Lesley Riddoch
The London Olympics are finally over – with a spectacular finale, third place for Team GB, feel-good flooding the nation(s) and the Paralympics ahead. No politician can hijack this bandwagon. No corporate giant can board this train. No caveats are needed. It was great.
Like the shared feeling between spectators at a great play or a friend’s wedding, words are almost superfluous. The sights, sounds, surprises and highlights of the Olympics have been experienced so vividly by so many people. And that’s a small miracle, because the Great British public was largely absent from the London Olympics.
In truth these have been the BBC Olympic Games.
The fact the Olympic buzz reached beyond the south of England is testimony to the athletes and to the BBC’s technical and storytelling wizardry. The combination created a vicarious watching experience so rich it probably surpassed actually being there. TV viewers witnessed sedate, well-dressed sporting heroes leap to their feet, punch the air, yell encouragement, drop scripts and clipboards, pull off microphones and join millions beyond the studios and commentary booths trying to push Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, David Rudisha and Usain Bolt over the line. These cheerfully hysterical scenes told one story. Absent or present, expert or amateur, a hundred yards or a hundred miles distant – as Olympic spectators we have all been in this together. Olympic coverage has turned the passive business of watching and listening into a turbo-charged and emotional experience. When Brendan Foster compared Mo Farah to Lasse Viren I was momentarily overcome, remembering how I watched that great Finnish runner with my late father in the 1970s. I suspect I’m not alone.
BBC coverage of the Olympics has created vivid new memories and enlivened old ones every waking minute of every day for millions of people. Watching TV has never felt so virtuous or active – especially for a generation brought up to believe “real” fun should be found outdoors. Television has only been the source of bad habits, patterns of violence, slouched posture, couch-potato lifestyles, poor diet, inactivity – you name it. Nothing good (in the Presbyterian, improving sense of the word) has ever poured from the box. Until now.
Social psychology professor Steven Reicher has called these the X Factor Olympics. It’s true that the Brits have certainly become quality spectators. Years of watching live performance programmes have taught us the grammar of being a “good” crowd – vocal, expressive and responsive with face-painting, Mexican waves, quickly-adopted chants and customised umbrellas. Last year copycat riots spread north from London. This year copycat big screens have happened instead. The set-up at Henman Hill was exported to a site outside the Olympic arena, and then big screens popped up at Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Trafalgar Square and beyond in city parks including Edinburgh’s Festival Square. Each of these “pop-up” crowds has itself been televised – creating a new form of collective semi-engagement without the cost and stress of travelling to sample the real deal.
But our transformation into superlative spectators is just half the story. Olympic-watching has not been the shallow, ephemeral experience of X Factor. If anything, this has been more like the Planet EarthOlympics – with jaw-dropping, inspiring demonstrations of human capacity and important insights into human behaviour.
The world now knows from shared, recent experience that real, successful men do cry. Real women are muscular. Brits do win. Football isn’t the only sport. Disabled athletes can compete with the able-bodied and asylum seekers can be embraced as True Brits by the Daily Mail. So many social taboos and limiting beliefs have been challenged during this Olympics – the only question is how long the fresh air of permissiveness, plurality and acceptance will last.
That’s where the BBC’s legacy comes in. The London Games showed the incredible power of good broadcasting to lift the national mood and reshape interests and even beliefs. Short, factual films slotted between races have offered social comment – from the “Black Power” athletes of 1968 to the archive footage of Jesse Owens running in front of Hitler – without the merest hint of “lecturing.”
The Olympics have demonstrated that great BBC coverage can motivate millions and create new demand for “minority” sports. But for that very reason it poses tough questions about the way BBC sports cash is currently spent.
Why do women get only 5 per cent of TV sports coverage? Why has Scottish football been allowed to run rampant across budgets, schedules, screens and airwaves? Evidently, given the opportunity, football lovers can also enjoy watching Taekwondo, women’s handball and athletics, too. In fact, good broadcasters can make almost anything interesting if they invest the effort, imagination, cash and belief. It’s good to know BBC Scotland will be host broadcaster for Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in 2014. Will that coverage be as comprehensive, ambitious, informed and creative as the Olympics (albeit on a much smaller budget) and how much will reach the BBC network?
Already “legacy” debates on TV and radio have passed on to Rio 2016 without pausing to even mention Glasgow 2014. What a shame.
For the last two weeks we have not been ourselves. Maybe we’ve been united as part of a superlative British nation. Maybe we’ve been united by superlative BBC coverage of stunning individual performances. Either way, 60 million folk witnessed themselves in an unusually buoyant state.
So what’s next? Everyone’s played tennis for two weeks after Wimbledon. We’ve all made New Year resolutions. We know we can’t become healthier people without facilities, coaching, family support, willpower, outgoing friends… and cash. Swimming costs £4.40 a time at Perth Leisure Pool. How many parents can afford that?
We also need free access to water for rowing and canoeing (not “closed” rivers carved up between anglers, timesharing riparian owners, port authorities and the Crown Estates Commission). We need bike-favouring road junctions and “strict liability” laws which put the onus for safety on drivers (not the shameful rush to condemn cyclists witnessed after Dan Harris was killed by a ten tonne bus.) We need disused gyms and sports halls transferred now without cost by councils to community trusts – not half-hearted rental offers or prevarication.
It’s a tall order. But maybe thinking really big is the greatest legacy an Olympics can bestow.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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