Simpson’s Soapbox: A Games to remember

Fireworks during the London Olympic Games 2012 Opening Ceremony.  BELOW: Clare Balding and Mo Farah.
Fireworks during the London Olympic Games 2012 Opening Ceremony. BELOW: Clare Balding and Mo Farah.
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THERE has been an abundance of winners to stoke national pride as a wave of optimism and happiness sweeps through the country on the back of the Olympic gold rush.

And nowhere has the smile been bigger than within the hierarchy of the BBC.

Clare Balding

Clare Balding

It’s fair to say that most of the commentary and presenting team are playing a blinder.

The commentators who described the victory of Dong Dong in the trampolining without bursting out into laughter deserve a BAFTA.

It was the crying game for John Inverdale when he shed tears interviewing the two British rowers Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, who had agonisingly missed out on a gold medal.

He came in for stick in some quarters, though one suspects there would have been a far worse reaction if it had been a woman presenter who had got visibly upset in such a way.

Mo Farah

Mo Farah

It is a reasonably safe assumption to make that the columnists, the female ones at that, would have had a field day.

Standing head and shoulders above everyone else as a presenter at these Games is Clare Balding, who has shown what a gold-plated asset she is to sports broadcasting.

She is very much the popular head-girl and a by-word in versatility, never being stumped by her subject, however new the sport might be to her.

Clearly having done her homework, she is neither stuffy or stiff.

Balding is the outstanding sports broadcaster of her generation, which makes it all the more puzzling why the BBC has dropped her number one event, horse racing.

Whether it is swimming, show jumping or even rugby league, she comes into her own.

She does a regular programme on Radio 4 on rambling, was at the forefront of Wimbledon and Open Golf coverage on Radio Five Live, and is currently writing her autobiography, and there will be only the briefest of breaks for her after these Games.

She will be lead presenter on Channel 4 for the Paralympics – the network, having poached the rights from the BBC, will have all-day coverage, and they could turn out to be the best ever, with excitement and national pride still at fever pitch after all the Olympic triumphs.

I am quite sure that Balding could turn her attention to current affairs if she so desired, having been a former president of the Cambridge University Union, and you don’t get to her heights by being the dumbest girl in the class.

The BBC’s proud boast is that this is the most comprehensive coverage of any Olympics ever in this country.

With 2,500 hours in all over a variety of interactive and on-line platforms, there is little or no excuse to miss which sport takes your fancy.

The number of hours being screened is mind-boggling.

In a way it is too much of a good thing all at once.

If they could spread it out across the year then there would have been no need to abolish Grandstand on Saturday and Sunday afternoon!

Maybe even a Monday Grandstand could take the overspill...

ITV viewing figures must have taken a pounding over the last 11 days, and a staggering 27 million people watched the spectacular opening ceremony on the BBC.

Usain Bolt’s 100 metres success had 19 million people turning on, while there were 17.1 million for the 10,000 metres to see Mo Farah breast the tape first.

ITV will take a hit in terms of advertising revenue, though they never apparently bid for the Games.

But if they had won them, the share price would have soared, with increased advertising and perhaps lucrative tie-ups with official sponsors of the Games. But it is the Beeb’s shebang – and they are rising to the occasion.

Whether it will persuade the powers-that-be at the Corporation to do a volte-face and restore their spending on sports rights is another matter, and given the way that the licence fee was frozen it has to be said there is no going back on that.

But certainly it should lead to some kind of re-think or re-evaluation.

Boxing has been one of the success stories of the Games in terms of audience appeal, albeit that some of the fighters have complained about the standard of the judges, though it was ever thus.

Boxing – with women in action for the first time – has been one of the hottest tickets of the Games, with crowds of 10,000 packed in and sending the decibel level to almost unbearable, deafening levels, like those experienced at rock concerts.

It is very much open to question whether the BBC will ever return to the sport – whatever did happen to Jim Neilly, a qualified boxing judge himself, who has returned to the TV after what is years away?

I am sure his beard was dark rather than grey the last time he was behind a BBC microphone.

Show jumping has got gold medal projection and has been neglected by the BBC over the years.

And yet the Horse Of The Year Show and the Royal International Horse Show under the lights used to be a nightly staple on BBC at certain times of the year, shown on prime-time at around 9.30pm, with Dorian Williams and later Raymond Brookes-Ward doing the commentaries.

That was in the days when there were only three channels, but it must have got outstanding figures because it was around for years and made stars out of riders like Harvey Smith and Marion Mould.

One could never see it being returned to such a slot in the schedules, but it could do with a publicity push, and the BBC should be at the forefront of doing the pushing.

Puzzlingly, earlier in the year, the BBC had the Badminton Horse Trials planned for behind the red button until, the whole competition was called off because of waterlogging. The BBC can deliver top-level sport and this Olympics have proved it.

They have had excellent analysts in Ian Thorpe and Michael Johnson, but the main impetus has come from female presenters.

Gary Lineker and John Inverdale have been put in the shade – Balding is top drawer, and not that far behind are Hazel Irvine and Gabby Logan.

The latter was never properly utilised when working on soccer programmes on ITV, but she has been given much more scope at the Corporation and is making the most of it.

Irvine, too, is thoroughly professional and is putting in an impressive stint, leaving no corners cut.

It has been in every sense a Games to remember and those early few days when there was no gold to celebrate are little more than a faded memory – remember that early national newspaper headline: All We Are Saying is Give Us A Gold?

Certainly, Britain has set themselves high standards and are on course to finish third in the medals table behind China and the United States, which is no mean achievement.

But more important than that, the influence on young people has been immeasurable.

It came home to me last weekend when a young girl was travelling back from seeing the Olympic football in Manchester – leafing through her official programme of the Games, she was thoroughly downcast when she discovered that the synchronised swimming clashed with the gymnastics, so the youngster would have to forego the pleasure of one or the other.

That level of interest among kids is magnified the length and breadth of the country, and it us to all those in sport to ensure such interest is allowed to nurture and flower like the bouquets handed out to the gold medal champions.