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World Cross is alive, but BBC made it dead

‘And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound…of silence’

It’s more than 50 years since Simon & Garfunkel topped the charts with the above song, but watching the IAAF World  Cross Country Championships yesterday, far removed from the delightful madness on the course in Kampala, it struck  me that the timeless tune must have been playing on repeat in the BBC’s studio. Not only that, but the lyrics seemed to reflect the producer’s chief strategy in covering the event.

Because they seemed resolutely, painfully, and, for those of us who love cross country, tragically committed to bleaching the noise and atmosphere from the event, leaving us undisturbed on a Sunday afternoon but also —and this is the real shame — utterly unimpressed.

[Note: since this was published, we received messages from those watching live coverage to say the BBC had technical difficulties, not noted in the highlights package, which likely contributed to the lack of natural sound. However, the majority of the points still stand, given the BBC’s consistent lack of natural sound at events compared to other broadcasters.]

Truth be told, I didn’t watch the races live. Another athletics engagement meant I was casting the occasional eye on a muted live stream, trying to follow the races as a flurry of folk who were actually there raved about the deafening din the locals were creating. I could see that on the stream, the Ugandans waving their arms, jumping, shouting, screaming their support as two of their athletes — Jacob Kiplimo and Joshua Cheptegei — contended for gold in separate races.

My first thought: Christ, I’d love to be there. My second: Jesus, looking forward to watching that back tonight.

Little did I know that there would be very little difference between my muted stream and the coverage on BBC, where Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe narrated us through an event that had the vast majority of natural sound, and as a result the vast majority of atmosphere, bleached from the coverage.

Silence like a cancer grows

Jacob Kiplimo sent the home crowd into a frenzy by winning the U20 title, but where was the atmosphere? (Photo: Roger Sedres for IAAF)

Jacob Kiplimo sent the home crowd into a frenzy by winning the U20 title, but the coverage failed to transmit that to the audience (Photo: Roger Sedres for IAAF)

An example: it’s 15 minutes and 30 seconds into the junior men’s race, and Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo is hanging on to a slender advantage with a little over a lap to run. He runs past a sea of fans — what looks a lot like the 10,000 people Simon & Garfunkel sang about — but the crowd are talking without speaking. We can see them going crazy, but we can’t hear them.

Another example: it’s 21 minutes and 20 seconds into the senior men’s race, and Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei is holding on for dear life out front, on his way to an historic gold medal as fatigue starts to invade every last cell in his body, causing him to slow to a dizzied trot that looks familiar to anyone who’s had 10 pints, an unknown number of shots, then didn’t have enough money left for the taxi home.

At that point, we could again see the crowd going bonkers enough to make Dizzee Rascal look as bland as Ed Sheeran, but guess what we heard, again? The sound of silence — with Cram and Radcliffe casually talking us through the closing, climactic stages of a race that actually justified the painfully overused tag of epic.

There is a rule in journalism: show, don’t tell. So let’s say, hypothetically, that Donald Trump is an idiot. Then it’s not enough for the writer to tell us he’s an idiot; they have to include quotes or actions of his that show he’s an idiot, allowing us to make up our own mind.

Likewise with the World Cross Country, an event that had been on its knees for a  variety of reasons, chief among them going to places like Guiyang where — let’s be honest — no one appeared to give a flying f*** about cross country.

“The crowd is going absolutely crazy here, and why not?” Cram told us with a lap to go in the senior men’s race. “Look at the support he’s getting,” he said when Kiplimo hit the front in the junior men’s race.

And we did look, and we could see, but apart from a few all-too-brief periods where we were allowed hear — and feel — the atmosphere in Kampala, the majority of the coverage was just…dead.

And that’s a damn shame, because for all the justified rumours of its demise, the event proved yesterday that it is still very much alive. Just look at this video from Letsrun, one of the few outlets in the running world to give the event the coverage it deserves.

And it’s not a slight on the commentators. Cram has perfectly narrated and carried us through some of the sport’s finest moments, and Radcliffe offers consistently informative insight on distance races alongside him. But when the commentators fail to get truly excited about a race that warrants it, then that seeps through to the audience.

Sydney Screams

One of my best memories of athletics was sitting in front of a small TV in my living room, 12 years old, watching Cathy Freeman win 400m gold in Sydney. Not because of the race — in pure athletics terms, it wasn’t truly a classic — but because of how Eurosport broadcast the race. Seventeen years on, I’ve still never seen a replay of that exact coverage, but it’s ingrained in my memory as a reminder of how much this sport can thrill in our living rooms when we don’t just get to watch the race, we experience it. There’s a difference, and it comes down to how much of the natural sound the producers allow seep through. Watch this ABC coverage, with all its background  noise, and tell  me you feel nothing.

Granted, the most conservative of producers would have struggled to drown out 112,524 Aussies that night, but Eurosport and ABC, rather than seeing it as interference, embraced every last bit of it. It meant Tim Hutchings had to shout — and I mean shout — into his microphone as Freeman surged away off the last bend, his voice competing with the roars around him, the noise in that moment saying more than his words ever could.

A different memory, the Boston Marathon, 2015, but another broadcasting master stroke. Approaching the halfway mark, as anyone who has run it will know, the field passes Wellesley College, where thousands of female students line the route every year to support the runners.

Again, I wasn’t there, but sitting with the other writing drones, buried in laptops in the media centre. But then something happened on the broadcast that forced me to sit up and pay attention: the commentators shut the hell up. For two blissful minutes, they took in natural sound from the course so viewers could feel what it’s like to be an elite and run through that Wellesley Scream Tunnel.

There are moments like that in sport where nothing needs to be said, like when Barcelona came back and won 6-1 in the Champions League tie with PSG last month. When that final goal goes in, and Camp Nou explodes into pandemonium, a good broadcaster knows that nothing should really be said, that we just need to see the stadium and hear the noise, because for even the briefest of moments, it allows us to be there.

People talk a lot about this sport needing to change, and it does, but that goes for everyone — administrators, journalists, athletes, and yes, even the broadcasters.

Come on, BBC, let everyone feel the noise.

Frank Murphy with the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame Award. Pic: Sportsfile
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Dual stars: David Campbell (left) winning the national senior 800m title in 2007 and Ciarán Ó Lionáird (right) taking victory at the Boston Indoor Grand Prix in 2012. Images: Kieran Carlin & PhotoRun
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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