The BBC’s Olympics coverage is in danger of becoming too matey

The White Queen in Through The Looking Glass advised Alice to practice believing six impossible things before breakfast; the BBC coverage of the Olympic Games on Sunday morning showed Charlotte Worthington doing ridiculous, incredible feats on a BMX bike before the kettle had boiled. Shortly after that, a gymnast from Russia was effecting a triple pike back somersault on the men’s floor; no man had ever attempted that in a competition before. Certainly puts poaching an egg into perspective.

For this TV viewer, the delight of an Olympic Games is the brief, intense relationships you form with sports you’d never previously given a hoot about: yelling at a taekwondo referee for a shocking decision against a robbed Brit, becoming the leading authority in your own living room on canoeing for an hour and half and then forgetting all about it for four years. The moments come thick and fast, burn brightly and – sorry, legacy claimers and obesity epidemic boffs – then fade. Olympians bring the extraordinary into our homes for a fortnight and televising all of this, being all things to all people, is in itself an impossible job.

The BBC has had a problem this year, partly of its own making and partly not. We have grown so used in recent Olympics to watching every minute of every sport at the click of a red button; this year, the BBC has not got the full rights, so is reduced to being able to show just two events at once on the telly. Money was the reason: the BBC was not able to pay and the Discovery Network has entered the space. Inevitably, medal moments have been missed on the BBC. One notes that some of the angrier critics are also of the “defund the BBC/abolish the licence fee” persuasion; can you have it both ways?

Having less actual live sport has meant more punditry, analysis and chat, which you can either see as being filler or providing context. It certainly provides the same old faces with yet another TV gig. Another downside, particularly if you happen to consume the BBC output on social media, radio or website as well is that you get told the same story multiple times. Like any right-thinking person I was naturally over the moon to hear that Chelsie Giles had won a bronze for Britain in the women’s 52 kg judo; once you’ve heard it for the 17th time that day, it loses its lustre. No offence to Chelsie, to whom one would only say: congratulations, well done, and please don’t break any of my limbs.

It is a quadrennial pleasure to hear the experience of the likes of Christine Still on gymnastics; as well as getting to know minor sports a little bit from Brit heroes of the recent past. A star has been born in Lutalo Muhammad, the taekwondo pundit: he surely has a great future in broadcasting, beyond the business of explaining the finer points of people kicking each other in the tummy should he so wish. 

Clearly a lot of these sports are a small world, and the people holding the BBC microphones have long-standing personal relationships with the people in the GB lycra. The mixed blessing of this was shown in the 100m post-race interview between Dina Asher-Smith and her friend, the BBC touchline reporter Jeanette Kwakye. Asher-Smith evidently felt comfortable enough with her interlocutor to give a revealing, emotional interview that made for excellent TV. 

On the other hand, she appeared to be saying that a small but significant number of people knew she was carrying an injury into the games that made victory highly unlikely, and that Kwakye was in that inner circle. What the BBC does with athletics at a Games is in many ways excellent, but it’s not exactly journalism in the commonly, or perhaps one should say previously, understood sense. 

But even this matey, compassionate exchange was too much for some: fellow sprinter Adam Gemili was among those online who was upset that the pictures did not cut away from Asher-Smith when she cried. Too cosy? Too nosey? Pleasing everyone does indeed seem impossible.

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