International athletics began to pall some time in the middle 90s. Some commentators blame the pandemic steroid abuse. The drug testers unmasked more junkies in the sport than in a heroin high-rise and public confidence was corroded. But I blame ITV and the decision to strip its Friday night schedule of the Golden 4, a glittering quartet of continental meets in which competitors raced, leapt and hurled for actual bullion. All of which exhilarating action was presided over by Jim Rosenthal, nearly always from under a golf umbrella it seemed.
Athletics absorbed the grave privation that the loss of Rosenthal represented, and has more recently snuggled down in the cosier surroundings of the BBC on the sofa next to Countryfile and Eggheads. Hosted by the sportscasting equivalent of soft furnishings, humans in knit form. Sue Barker. Sally Gunnell. Jonathon Edwards. The type of folk who could be spotted enthusiastically manning a tombola at the local church fete.
But things are changing. Athletics has now migrated to Channel 4, the cradle of ‘yoof’ television, and is shedding the fleece cocoon like a very cool teenage butterfly. The World Athletics Championships being presented to appeal to the textspeak demographic, tessellating sweetly with the stratagem pursued by the London 2012 organising committee who have littered the inner cities with nu-rave outdoor gymnasia and unveiled a logo that looks like it has been sprayed onto some railway sidings.
Channel 4 have played safe by recruiting some robust pillars of the BBC athletics community: John Rawling, Dave Moorcroft, the lugubrious Michael Johnson, and sprinkled it with fresher, less lucid sorts like Iwan Thomas (peroxide – yeah!) and Dean Macey, whose childlike mania for proceedings make it sound more like We Are The Champions than top-level sport. And then there’s Ortis. Ortis Deley is younger and blacker than Sue Barker, and anchors with the conviction of a man who didn’t know that athletics existed before last week. Ortis is umbilically attached to the clipboard in his lap, the crib sheet on which probably shows a hastily-etched picture of a hurdle with an arrow that says ‘this is a hurdle’. Ortis is a wandering refugee from Saturday morning children’s television (seriously, what happened to Saturday kids’ programming – do young people really prefer Rick Stein and his dover sole recipes?)
The commentary team is always keen to name-check the potential audience of ‘kids’, particularly during the possibly inspirational yet unsuccessful run of Mo Farah to 10,000m gold. Although I’m dubious as to why any child would aspire to screaming desperately as if being chased rapidly down by a peckish velociraptor.
The IAAF have also waded in on the initiative by introducing a vicious false start ruling that could have been dreamt up by a diabolic reality televsion producer. The one strike regulation has done for Christine Ohuruogu, Dwain Chambers and the posturing Usain Bolt, who was then compelled to go and posture next to a curtain.
All this ‘faster, stronger, higher, bling blinger’ is great, but of course Channel 4 is only borrowing championship athletics from BBC, who retain the Olympic rights for 2012. Expect to see Steve Cram in a backwards baseball cap somewhere in East London next August.