Essays: Mood change at Munich |
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Mood change at Munich

IT APPEARS that the jovial aspersions cast in these columns upon the BBC’s coverage of the Munich Olympics touched many a raw nerve: the fan-mail, most of it sobbing with gratitude and shared anguish, arrived first in a trickle, then in a torrent, and finally in its own small van driven by a man with a peaked cap. Folks (I’ve always wanted to be able to say this), I can’t answer all your letters individually, so let me outline briefly what I would this week have spoken of at length, if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse hadn’t ridden into Munich and permanently ousted these Olympics from the laughing-matter category.

Most of your main points would have been covered, including the tut-tut qualifications with which you commendably led to restrain my polemical zeal. It’s certainly true that since the day the track-and-field events began, BBC prestige has been somewhat restored by the complementary abilities of Norris McWhirter, Ron Pickering and the Godfather, David Coleman. Pickering’s tendency to grit his entire vocal mechanism and talk a suppressed shriek of constipated strain needs to be fought against, but be knows what he’s talking about and mercifully hasn’t yet succumbed to the cosa nostra rule of keeping all information to himself except that which the public either possesses already or doesn’t need to know. And Coleman, the Ultimate Professional: what is there to say about him that hasn’t been said before, except the one, small, tender thing that his admirers have always been too shy to say — that he doesn’t know when to button his lip?

Well, that would have been true last week, and we all could have had a good chuckle; but the unthinkable intervened, and it has to be said that at the memorial service on Wednesday morning Coleman did an impeccable job. He spoke a subdued, sparse and austere commentary, gently hinting at the ironies by which every thinking man must have been preoccupied. The Israeli team went to a memorial service at Dachau before the Games — a good, if unsettling, piece of information to supply. That was about the limit of the parallel-drawing Coleman permitted himself. The German officials were allowed to get on with talking about the crime in the respectful silence their distress deserved. Coleman even kept his cool when the amazing, inflatable Avery Brundage drew a straight connection between the terrorist action and the enforced expulsion of Rhodesia. Perhaps Coleman carries a crystal ball in his brush-and-comb set, and already knew that Brundage would be wheeled out again two days later to announce that he had ‘not the slightest intention’ of implying any such thing. Coleridge once said, superbly, that Polonius was the personified memory of wisdom no longer actually possessed. This is not true of Avery Brundage.

Men of Athens, there is so much we could have discussed together. Harry Carpenter has been brief and to the point on the boxing, the only event in the Games which affects your reviewer like barbiturates instead of amphetamines. Robin Knox-Johnston is a rank beginner as a commentator, and his voices-over on the yachting were consequently full of facts and informed opinion which he’ll need to be shot of if he wants to get ahead: visual counterpoint to his vocals was supplied by arbitrary lengths of incomprehensible footage featuring small boats with numbers on their sails. Dorian Williams talked about the equestrian events with deep insight, which is nice but only to be expected, since that whole hooray scene at the BBC has oats on the office floor and a water-jump in the loo. ‘And she still enjoys her hunting,’ sang Williams over a long shot of a 70-year-old British competitor, ‘as well as her dressage.’ Talking to our riders is a bit like chatting up the top half of a centaur, but one British team-leader, in a burst of eloquence, announced that there was no real class-barrier enclosing the horsey world — anybody could break in, so long as he had his own pony when young.

As a last word on the BBC’s effort, let me fail to commend Ian Wooldridge for his interviewing. He and Colin Welland — his vis à vis on ‘Sport Two’ — are supposed to be the highbrows of this caper, but there are times when you wouldn’t know. When Olga Korbut reeled off the names of the Russian gymnasts who impressed her at Tokyo, it was a dull move of Wooldridge’s to ask if she’d wanted to marry them: you don’t have to actually read Russian to know that all those ‘a’ endings denote females.

Busy with monitoring almost every minute of the BBC’s epic coverage, I didn’t see much of the ITV effort. At a glance. I’d say it had the same virtues and the same faults. Adrian Metcalfe knows his technical onions about the sports and can interview unobtrusively, which is a trick that almost every BBC man needs to go back to school and learn all over again. After Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett trashed their national anthem at the 400-metre victory ceremony, Metcalfe did a good job of probing Collett to find out if they’d done it deliberately. Collett clammed up, in a way that spoke volumes. Other ITV men have been less subtle. After David Bedford did exactly the same in the 5,000-metre heat as he did in his 10,000-metre heat, Fred Dinenage said he was ‘half-way to a medal’ in the 5,000 metres. Like in the 10,000 metres? And once it was discovered that nobody in commercial television could pronounce Stecher, it would have been better to settle on Stecker than on Stetcher. Nope: the ITV coverage looked pretty similar to the BBC’s — it was only the fact that there was less of it that made it seem more civilised.

As for the Games themselves, they need a cure. Dr Bannister was on the right lines when he said they needed scaling down. Getting rid of the flags would be a good first step towards getting rid of the drugs. But I, for one, don’t want to got rid of the Games themselves. Without them there’d be no Olga Korbut, no Ludmilla Turischeva, no Alan Weeks, no David Vine. Without them there’d be no enchanted moments such as Barry Davies moaning dementedly, ‘No team has worked harder than the winners of this match’ after Russia beat Japan at volleyball, and then adding in a concerned mutter, ‘or indeed the losers.’ Baby, you couldn’t write it that way: it has to happen of its own accord. And what do you know? The Olympics have filled the column again after all. Next week, back to the jostling reality of the new schedules.

The Observer, 10th September 1972