Beijing on TV: A view from US, Day 1, by Jeff Benjamin

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So, we asked Jeff Benjamin to give us his thoughts on the coverage by Universal TV of the World Champs from the former colonies, aka United States. As many of you know, I have an allergic aversion to Universal due to the plan fact that its owner, Comcast, does not even include it in many of their programs across the U.S.

Ghebreslassie_Ghirmay1-World15.JPgGhirmay Ghebreslassie, photo by PhotoRun.net

Ok I admit it. I am not totally unbiased towards all the facets of the sport of athletics. While I have nothing but respect and awe for the dedication and performances of the hammer throwers, shot putters, sprinters, hurdlers, among others, my passionate devotion is centered upon those middle distance and long distance athletes.
So as I sat up, state-side to watch the opening television episode on Universal Sports, I eagerly awaited to watch the start of the men's marathon, which was the opening event of the championship. As the show commenced, I was caught up in what looked to be a darn good athletic drama as the viewers were treated by the Brit commentators Bob Walker, Peter Matthews, and Steve Ovett( that's right, that Steve Ovett!).
Co-announcing is the ultimate team work on television in that the commentators have to be very careful no to over step each other vocally while still using their talents to get their points and issues across with respect to each other. These guys didn't disappoint. While Walker led the way in the play by play commentating of the races that enfolded, Ovett would chime in with interesting points and analysis with almost pin point precision but then track fans shouldn't be surprised as the legendary miler, known for his epic duals with fellow Brit Sebastian Coe, possesses those qualities on the track as well. As the marathoners slowly clicked off significant spilt times, Matthews, one of the sports great statisticians, expertly and concisely would explain to the viewer what the previous 5k spilt was and possibly project the finish times that he expected.
But now on to the race!!
A slow pace as the leaders went through the first 5K in just over 16 minutes, the British commentating team brilliantly set up what would be a suspenseful race. Walker prophetically proclaimed that, " this will not be a fast paced race meaning the top finishers could be unknowns"
Thirty minutes into the marathon, Ovett commented on how far in front the runners can see indicating how the course was laid out pretty much straight ahead.
Walker and Ovett then discussed their ideas on the possible sub-2hour marathon, with Walker wondering if it could be achieved on a straight line flat course. Just like track fans hanging out in a bar, the 1980 Olympic 800 meter champion reminisced how once, when training in Wichita, Kansas, doing a 15 mile run along a straight line route,"I saw a black dot ahead and I kept going and going until I got to it and it was a "dead cat"! Ovett noted that the straight line route marathon, while designed well, "would be psychologically very hard"
What's great about watching the marathon is that the commentators can exchange old tales and anecdotes while watching the race unfold and have time to shift towards their play by play and reactions when an important move is made. Ovett, Walker, and Matthews all made that transition with ease. It was especially great to hear from Ovett, who was real upbeat, humorous and full of empathy for the runners, the total opposite of his competitive days, when he was known as possessing a self-proclaimed "cold" demeanor.
When it returned from a commercial break ( one of those frustrating things), Meucci of Italy, along with his compatriot Pertile were possibly, according the commentators, using team tactics to try and break the pack. These events led Walker and Ovett to reminisce about other Italian World and Olympic champions such as Alberto Cova and Gelindo Bordin, which was very cool. Also cool for the fan was how the race was developing. "Like a chess match," said Walker. Indeed the viewer was in good hands, feeling the suspense as the race went on to almost an hour and a half.
But the suspense fell apart like a punctured balloon. Despite dealing with commercial breaks which robbed us of some big news, the marathon race was continually interrupted by the opening of the Women's heptathlon 100 hurdle heats, which robbed us of a good 20 minutes of the important part of the marathon. And while it was no doubt important to show these events, where Jessica Ennis-Hill and Canadian BreanneTheison-Eaton qualified, yet American champ Barbara Nwaba tragically hit a few hurdles and didn't finish, the momentum of the marathon coverage was lost, as the viewer missed out on the, according to Walker, "ridiculously" fast surge put in by Lesotho's Tsepo Mathebelle. But this didn't last long, because there then began another commercial break, with a return back to the track for the beginnings of the Men's Hammer throw. Ugh!
By the time the marathon was back on history was being made as 19 yr old Ghirmay Ghebresalassie of Eritrea
(Walker noted a few times there is no relation to Haille!) became the youngest winner of this race, crossing the line in a bit of confusion due to the mistaken thought that there was another lap to run ( a mistake made by almost all of the finishers, Editor's note: That was because no one was at finish line to greet the marathoners.)
As the coverage then focused on the track and field events ( where I was happy for Evan Jaeger and especially thrilled for Dom Cabral in qualifying for the steeplechase final) I went to bed with conflicted feelings. On one hand, the announcers were great! Their knowledge and insight was dead on in ALl the events. Although I know it was a Brit broadcast, it would have been real cool to have Larry Rawson on. His knowledge, along with his abilities to not only explain to the novice fan the respective event but also do great conversions of the metric distances would make American viewers feel more involved, in my humble opinion.
What greatly frustrated me ( and I do t think I'm alone) were the commercial breaks (which through the years I've come to expect) but most importantly leaving key moments in the marathon to show qualifying heats on the track. I feel it doesn't just do a disservice to the viewer, but also to the athletes who are not getting their due attention, whether in the marathon or in the stadium.
Track and field meets are known for creating a 3-ring circus format. Perhaps with a little tightening up of the format, EVERY athlete can get their due, which is, after what the fans want. It's about timing-- just ask Steve Ovett!!

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