Archive for the ‘Cycling’ Category

The objectivity of a commentator

A comment on my last post about Lance Armstrong about Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen got me thinking about commentators, the nature of their task and what they owe the fans and the athletes, and possibly the sport itself.

The comment said that Phil Liggett should not have promoted Lance Armstrong’s charity events, and Paul Sherwen should not have gone into business with Lance, and generally they should not have tooted his horn so much as they are supposed to be journalists. They compromised their positions, and could no longer report on the sport when they held vested interests with individuals competing at the time.

So I thought a bit about what it means to be a journalist, and what it means to be a commentator. I have a gut feeling that they are separate entities, and that being a commentator does not necessarily make you a journalist, and vice-versa.

This post is by no means going to be a thorough description of a job from a normative standpoint. Moreso I am going to think as a fan. What do I want from a commentator? What, if anything, do they owe me as they call their sport. Also, I’m not particularly interested in the timbre of their voice, or any such aesthetic matters, as interesting those matters are to discuss over a beer of three on a Friday evening. The Ray Hadley vs Andrew Voss debate was a common one around pubs in Australia this year, and I would hazard a guess that your average non-2GB-listening punter would have backed Vossy all the way. If they didn’t then they probably share Hadley’s baffling political and social views. Tell me I’m wrong.

I’m more interested in discussing the objectivity of the commentator who shouts, whispers or drones (depending on sport and commentator) on in the background as we watch, no doubt jumping out of our seat every now and then to say things like “Offside! Are you fucking blind?” “Got him! Yes! Piss off. You’re out!” and my personal favourite “Shoooooooottttt!”

The best thing about “Shot” is it can be used in earnest to describe a good shot in tennis/cricket/ping pong/pool or can be used ironically to describe an abortion of an attempt by a player. Versatility is its strong point.

Should a commentator be objective? I suppose here is a convenient time to differentiate the “colour” commentator from the “play by play” guy.

The colour commentator, I think we can all agree, is not paid to be objective. He (or she) is paid to give his opinion on the game. If he doesn’t rate a guy’s (or girl’s) performance, he’s supposed to tell you about it. If he thinks someone is awesome, again, he’ll tell you all about it.

Sometimes we hate colour commentators because they drone on and on about the same thing every time they’re on air, or are just so openly biased that they frustrate opposition fans to the point of yelling at the TV, expecting a response, ala Ian Chappell and Murray Mexted.

Sometimes we love these commentators, and they’re the best or only reason to watch/listen to a certain program. I think Kerry O’Keefe would be a prime example.

It comes with the territory of being a colour commentator that you have to have a level of personal familiarity with players. They are often former athletes or coaches themselves, and to expect them to relieve themselves of these relationships before taking up commentating would be unnecessary and possibly harmful to their craft. The right balance and level of familiarity can be discussed, but eventually it will just come down to who the individual is and who is friends are, and up to the fan to recognise the potential biases.

The play-by-play guy, which category Phil Liggett, Ray Warren, Gordon Bray and Darryl Eastlake fall into, is the dude who rabbits on, constantly describing the action. If it’s going to be anyone, the burden of objectivity is going to fall on him.

I think Greg Clarke, the Aussie rugby commentator, does a reasonable job of this. Hugh Bladen (I know I promised not to talk about timbre of voice, but indulge me for a moment), with the best voice of any commentator, ever, maintains a fairly objective point of view throughout the matches he calls.

Even in these more objective casts of fixtures more emphasis is placed on the home country. Greg Clarke loves talking Wallabies, and knows more about them than any other team because he gets paid to call Australian games. Whether it’s deliberate or not, both he and Hugh concentrate more on their team than the opposition.

Phil Liggett, on the other hand, is a guy who has been calling cycling races for forty years, and it probably the best ever English caller of cycling. He has earned, and I mean earned, the tag of “The voice of cycling.”

Do we expect objectivity from Phil? The person who commented no my blog certainly thinks we do, or at least should.

Personally, I’m not so sure. I think commentators have a relationship with the athletes that demands some accountability in the way they talk about them on air, but not objectivity necessarily.

If you take away the personal feelings commentators have about players, you don’t get as much emotion in a broadcast, and surely it is the commentator’s job to inject emotion into the game. Otherwise the hype around players, the screaming when a certain player comes from nowhere to make a crucial tackle, or score the winning try, or kick the winning gaol, would be either lost or it would be disingenuous.

Sport is all about subjectivity for the fan, even for those who commentate. I treat the commentator as a salesman more than a journalist, and it’s his job to tell you why the sport is so great, why the athletes are great, and why you should be watching them.

He shouldn’t tell you why these things are objectively good either, instead why these things appeal to him personally.

I would separate sport reportage from commentary, and say that there is more burden on a reporter to be even-handed, if not objective in his or her coverage of a sport. I think that commentators going with their gut, having their favourites and telling us what they really think about an individual on a personal level is more than warranted.

As for whether there is a conflict of interest in a commentator supporting someone they commentate, say, in their charity endeavours, well, maybe that is more interesting. Should Phil Liggett endorse Lance Armstrong’s charity and MC events for him? I think he probably could, being that not only is he a cycling commentator, but more generally a cycling personality. He should separate his work as a commentator from his work as journalist as well as his work as a personality.

As an analogy, I think it would be appropriate for Ray Warren to MC a Darren Lockyer foundation event, or Ritchie Benaud a Ricky Ponting Foundation event.

I suppose what muddies the waters in Phil’s case is Lance being caught committing an awful crime. He stood by Lance for longer than most, but I don’t begrudge him that. Nor do I begrudge the best bike race caller I’ve listened to having an opinion on individuals in his sport.

It adds to the call. It adds to the spectacle. I don’t think objective coverage is necessarily par for the course in the case of the play-by-play guy.

I watch sport because it tugs the heartstrings. My heartstrings. Not the heartstrings of the neutral observer inside me.

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For those of you who believed in fairytales

I promised myself at the very beginning of this thing with Lance Armstrong that when Phil Liggett goes I go.

This is for a few reasons. First of all is the obvious one: Phil Liggett seems like just about the best bloke in history and should probably be listened to whenever he speaks he speaks about cycling, particularly when he speaks of the soul of the sport. Second of all the guy’s been watching Lance, and all the others, for years, and had a special kind of respect for him. He was reluctant to admit Lance did it, probably because he didn’t want to believe he had done it. I felt the same way.

The relationship between a commentator and an athlete is a funny one, and in the case of the Liggett-Armstrong relationship, a long one. There’s always an element of man-crush about it, but Liggett is a legend of the sport despite never having competed. He’s well thought of by those who listen.

He is referred to as ‘The voice of cycling.’ If this man is the voice, then surely he speaks from the heart of the sport. I wouldn’t say Phil speaks from the head. Phil is too pure to speak from the head. The head of the metaphorical cycling man is too corrupt.  The brains of the sport are in too deep to speak as Phil did.

So when Liggett said that he’s off the Lance-Wagon, I bailed too.

Let me reiterate, though, that I am reluctant to jump. Not because I don’t think he’s guilty. Not because what he did wasn’t wrong. The fact is it was so very wrong, and Lance knew it. I just wish he hadn’t.

In his speech after he won the 2005 Tour de France he criticised people who criticised him, saying they didn’t believe in miracles and were poorer for it.

The fact is that Lance Armstrong would have been the best thing to ever happen to cycling if he was clean. The fact that he cheated doesn’t vindicate anyone, particularly journalists with 20-20 hindsight. In some ways it only makes us poorer for having no one to believe in.

He was the man who won seven tours in a row, clean. He beat the cheats in their own backyard. He rose to the top and stayed there for longer than anyone else in the history of the sport. He dominated what I consider to be the hardest sporting event on the planet. He was the greatest this gruelling sport had ever seen, and there was daylight to second place. It was a real life miracle.

Or a fairytale.

It turns out that it was too much to ask for someone to beat the cheats without cheating himself. In no way am I justifying what he did by saying that he was only doing what everyone else did. I am simply saying that he was the man who we all thought could. I think sadness is just as appropriate a response as outrage.

The USADA report paints Lance as a bully; a ruthless individualist who will do anything to attain personal profit and glory. He manipulated and bullied the media into not reporting or retracting stories accusing him of doping. He bullied those who spoke out against him, and bullied his teammates into cooperating with the team doping policy.

He was the leader of the most sophisticated doping scheme in cycling history. He’s to blame for it all.

I didn’t know any of this was true before the USADA report. Then again, I didn’t realise Tiger Woods was a rampant sex maniac before his fall from grace in 2009. I think that, like Tiger, this image will be adjusted over time.

Like the reports of Tiger’s infidelity, I think the depiction of Lance as a bully who only wants what is good for himself will slowly recede in severity as his account is released and time runs its anger-cooling course.

People will begin to remember his charity work, which undoubtedly is a great thing that he has done for humanity, not just cycling, and many would argue is his greatest achievement (it certainly is now). Whether it was founded and nurtured under false pretences, and whether the means justify the end is certainly another point to debate, and may lead to another media storm. Another storm that will eventually rain itself out.

It may even come to pass, like it did with the Tiger, that people will actually start wishing him well again, and applaud him for his success in other ventures.

People will start to forgive him eventually.

The obvious question that really burns in all this is why has Lance refused to say anything? He could be writing his admission book, which will no doubt sell a load of copies and add fuel to the accusations of him being a money-hungry narcissist. He may be preparing some sort of statement that will not implicate him in anything legal, but admits his guilt. Who knows?

There have been some journalists (journalists I wasn’t even aware were cycling journalists, until now conveniently) who have said that his time has passed. It is too late to respond now, they say.

Why is that? Where is the arbitrary line that you drew that denotes the precise point when it was too late for an accused man to stand up and respond to these very serious allegations about the very fabric of his being; his life’s work? Or is it just because he didn’t fit in with your paper’s news values that his time has passed?

Take all the time you need Lance, but please direct your words toward the Phil Liggetts more than anyone else; those to whom you promised a miracle, and delivered this.

Stand, spray and deliver.

Critiques from the arm chair