Like many of you, I have spent much of the last fortnight assailing Mount Olympus, snatching fortifying glimpses of greatness, excellence, of history unfolding before me. Like several of you, I am not an avid sports watcher day in, day out. Part of the magic of the experience is sojourning in a world of rich cliche, liturgical repetition and obscure metaphor. Like perhaps only a few of you, I’m quite in to the commentary. I don’t just put up with it, it’s part of the appeal. I am like a lax and lapsed adherent of a religious service who, while not attending regularly, still enjoys repeating along with the ‘every last ounce’, ‘this is the final push’, ‘at the first time of asking’, ‘as we approach the final stretch’, ‘has she got it… yes she has, she’s done it, she’s done it.’
At one point, I read a broadsheet article about radio coverage of a sporting event. I could see the athlete’s endeavour only through a glass darkly, but it was wonderful. I have a sympathy for the storyteller, the raconteur, the pundit, the observer who observes so as to make observations. I’m descended from a long line of people who said things like, ‘What’s fascinating about this particular wooly mammoth and indeed your approach was…’
We are the minstrels, the bards, the pub bores, the people speaking a bit too loudly on train platforms. We narrate. We sit quietly (we do sometimes!) impassively, thinking to ourselves, ‘This is going in the blog, this is definitely going in the blog.’ We think out loud often because we have no choice but to do so, that is how the thought is formed and we are grateful for your patience. For us, it is oddly satisfying to hear the hanging, incomplete sentences of exhausted commentators trying to find something new to say about the twenty second person repeating the same basic action.
Another significant reason for my sympathy with the commentariat (fabulous word often used dismissively but I use with the greatest respect) is the horrifying, wonderful Alan Partridge. Steve Coogan’s character begun as a satire on the bizarrely assured but nonsense spouting sports reporter and began an Odyssey of exploring the inadequacies and insecurities of minor celebrity off piste in a number of rewarding incarnations. Alan Partridge is the graceless swan careening under the suave tones that awash sporting events, frantically kicking at life, failure and the attention they crave and fear.
One of the things Partridge nails is the commentator’s reliance on cliche. These are the tools as much as they were for the teller of Viking sagas, or Native American legends would use recurring tropes and characters, to keep us going, to keep us rapt. Sport is self evidently a story. Or a series of stories, played out for us across the caves of our imagination, albeit in lycra. They feature triumph, failure, struggle, the literal overcoming of obstacles. It is true that the stories told are often very simple: ‘Can the man get over the fence. No he can’t. It’s a shame because he really wanted to get over the fence. No he can’t just walk round cause it’s not like that. It’s just not, okay?’
Sporting events frame physical activities and imbue them with story. There is character, endeavour, testing of mettle (like metal but made of person rather than ore? maybe… I’m not sure, but clearly it is something that needs tested frequently). Sports people are always from somewhere and they are always going to somewhere. Sports teams and individuals tend to represent some kind of geographical location, even if only tenuously. A hero has to be from a village. She has to go on a journey.
And to close, using cliche in honour of our hallowed sports commentators, there is more than one way to skin a cat (one way of course being, to leave the cat alone, what use is cat skin anyway?). While I have enjoyed the commentary on offer my mind has wondered sometimes and I’ve imagined two alternative approaches. The first being that literary critics could have a go, cutting straight to the chase and going straight for the mythology. One could imagine Peter Conrad and Clive James using their disarming antipodean charm to deftly make references to ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture with such epithets as, “He really does have the Hashtag of Demaclese hanging over him now.” Secondly, improvised opera. Opera that responds to the action as it plays out in real time. A full orchestra, a soprano, tenor, alto and basso profoundo all poised to elucidate every sinew, every ripple, every grasp. I’m sure this is possible…