After the Olympic feast: can BBC Sport really return to a diet of football, football and more football?

For two weeks, the BBC has served up a glorious all-you-can-eat buffet of sports. Yet despite a wave of enthusiasm, the Beeb have admitted that there is no plan to increase minority sports coverage. So is that the last we will see of canoeists, gymnasts and cyclists for the next four years?

Alex Macpherson
13 August 2012

Coming out of the most successful fortnight for British sport in living memory feels like waking from a spell. There was a certain dream-like quality to London 2012: from the infectiousness of the Olympic fever that took over even perennial sports haters to the surreal deluge of British medals that seemed to wash away this country's obsession with its own mediocrity, it felt as though normal service had been suspended.

Of course, it had been - but that's not necessarily something to be proud of. For two weeks, the BBC pushed the boat out for the British public, serving up a glorious all-you-can-eat buffet of sports - and we gorged ourselves on it. 20m of us watched Usain Bolt's 100m triumph, and 29m took advantage of the ability to stream every possible event online. Some of us may even have done some of that at the same time: this writer's personal best was an attempt to simultaneously concentrate on three streams and one TV. But it was entirely anomalous to the usual experience of being a sports fan in Britain: the characters, drama and athletic feats that we thrilled to on the track, in the pool, on the mat and on the road are those normally struggling to win even the briefest pockets of media airtime. No wonder so many British medallists were unexpected, unknown names: what opportunity did the public have to learn about taekwondo fighter Jade Jones, triathlete Alistair Brownlee or canoeist Ed McKeever prior to the Games? Even the more traditional disciplines of London 2012's most fêted faces - heptathlete Jessica Ennis, runner Mo Farah, cyclist Sir Chris Hoy - are usually given relatively scant coverage.

More to the point, what opportunity will the newly inspired public have to keep up with these athletes and their sports? Depressingly, the BBC seemed to write off the prospect of increased minority sports coverage even before the Games began, using the tired excuse of insufficient demand: a nauseatingly conservative, safety-first attitude that utterly fails to recognise that the BBC, as a state-funded broadcaster, is in a privileged and unique position to be able to drive and create demand - as its own Olympic coverage illustrates so well.

But both the BBC and the wider mainstream media continue to be in thrall to a status quo wherein true sports coverage begins and ends with football, whose rumour mill alone receives vastly more airtime and column inches than entire competitions in many other sports. Those tend to be covered not as sports, but as events: a 2010 submission to the BBC Trust explicitly focuses on "sporting events that can bring the nation and communities together". Thus, the BBC goes all out for Wimbledon, the Six Nations and, indeed, the Olympic Games - but outside of those few days, you'd be forgiven for believing those sports don't exist, and therefore don't matter. That's not even the worst of it: that report admits, for example, the extent to which Wimbledon coverage is centred around Andy Murray matches. What, one wonders, will the BBC do if Murray retires tomorrow? It's hardly a healthy recipe for building sustainable interest in sport qua sport. Meanwhile, the all-encompassing behemoth of football squats, unmoving, in primetime spots; the contrast between the media ubiquity of the thuggish millionaires who constitute the national squad, and the lack of recognition accorded to a shocking number of financially struggling Olympic medallists becomes more glaring than ever.

What's also noteworthy is the vast gulf in terms of tone and character between the Olympic fortnight and quotidian sports coverage. Olympic viewers are often characterised as fickle, flighty types, temporarily caught up in a spectacle rather than committed long-term to a sport - but it's little wonder that so many of them fail to self-identify as "sports fans" on a more regular basis when that regular basis comprises an unrelenting and, crucially, alienating diet of blokey team sports. A crucial lesson to be learned from London 2012 should be the positive response to the diversity of sports, from the grace of gymnastics, to the one-on-one toughness of judo, to the individual lone missions of athletics, to fencing's compelling blend of the archaic and futuristic, to the mind-boggling hardcore endurance of the open water swim and triathlon competitors. During one afternoon, Team GB won almost concurrent gold medals in boxing and dressage: excelling at opposite ends of a vast spectrum of sports, one that's usually represented by only a tiny fraction of the multitudes it contains. 

Similarly, this diversity extends to coverage of female athletes: that the Olympics gain significantly more female viewers than any other sporting event is a statistic brought up around every Olympiad, but women's sports continue to be treated as second-class by the BBC and other broadcasters. Not even second-class, for that matter: last year, not one woman was shortlisted for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and as Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, told the New Statesman last week, the BBC gives "more coverage to darts alone than women's sports in total". It's a position that seems even more indefensibly ludicrous following a fortnight notable for the exploits of so many British sporting heroines.

The BBC may underestimate both the range and the passion of both pre-existing and newly converted sports fans in this country - but, of course, merely increasing coverage is an insufficient solution. The coverage has to be done well - but this doesn't mean overblown VTs or excruciatingly awkward, overly tactile post-race interviews, contrary to what the corporation seems to believe. Viewers respond to passion and knowledge; while the gold medal surely goes to the incomparable Clare Balding, perhaps a notable example was the gymnastics commentary team of Matt Baker, Christine Still and Mitch Fenner. Covering a niche sport with complex rules and scoring, they managed to communicate key points to the audience without ever over-simplifying the sport; but crucially, they were obvious fans as well as analysts. Their enthusiasm during the spectacular men's high bar final - which didn't even feature a British competitor - was a joy to hear, and their evangelism was infectious. Too often, the model of sports journalism in the UK requires young generalist reporters assigned to cover events they neither know nor care about - a turn-off to both viewers and readers. At Wimbledon a month ago, Kazakh player Yaroslava Shvedova won a historic "golden set" in her third round match; embarrassingly, the BBC commentator had no clue this had occurred until the statistics flashed up on the screen.

As intended all along, there's every indication that the past fortnight can be a crucial turning point for British sports. During the Olympic Games, the public's eyes were opened to the full range of sporting heroes, heroines and possibilities - both their existence and their excellence; the appetite for minority sports, both as spectators and participants, has never been higher. If the BBC cannot ride the wave to parlay this into a much-needed change of culture around how we perceive sports in the UK, it will be a catastrophic, incompetent failure. To return to a country in which sports begin and end with football would not just be an anticlimax: it would be a tragedy.

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