Sporting television means, alas, sporting commentators. I believe that it was Roone Arledge, an American television executive, who once lamented that although you could go on and on improving the technology of it, there was little you could do about the commentators.
Out of the mouths of British sporting commentators comes a stream of cliches and banalities, an endless humiliation of the English language, a bombast of chauvinism and hyperbole that reaches its zenith - or nadir - during the Olympic Games. No one, in the most recent Games, dove deeper than Anita Lonsborough, a strapping Yorkshire girl who won the gold medal in the breaststroke at the Rome Games of 1960. Commenting on the East German swimmer, Kornelia Ender, she exclaimed: "She has great respect for the water, and the water has great respect for her."
On such occasions, our commentators' voices tent to rise to high-pitched, patriotic screams: "Here she comes, the gallant British girl, limping in a brave 25th." Or there is the solemn rhetoric purveyed by such as Ron Pickering, a coach of some substance who is rather less happy as a commentator. "This the man . . ." he likes to say.
You Americans have Howard Cosell: we have David Coleman. I would a thousand times, rather than have as my friend Howard Cosell. Coleman and I have not spoken since I produced his exchange with the England soccer team trainer, Harold Shepardson, on the balcony of the Royal Garden Hotel in London just after England had won the 1966 World Cup.
Coleman, a master of the cliche, the scourge of colleagues and technician, who do not do exactly and immediately what he feel they should do, was for many years king of the castle in sports television with the BBC. He was the chief commentator on track and field, of which he knew something, although his purple passages sent shudders down the spine of anyone sensitive to language and taste. He also was the chief commentator on soccer, about which he knew rather less.
On the balcony of the Royal Garden, Coleman microphone in hand and merry laugh on lips, was interviewing players of the victorious England team. He came, with a laugh, to Ray Wilson, the English left-bck, a fine defender whose miscued header, early in the game, had dropped at the feet of Germany's Helmut Haller, and been promptly shot home for the game's first goal. Laughingly, Coleman reminded him of it. Wilson looked wretched. "Everyone makes mistakes," he muttered.
A few minutes later, it was the turn of Shepherdson, a middle-aged North Easterner. "And this is Harold Shepherdson," cried Coleman, "the England trainer. You were sitting next to Alf Ramsey (the English team's senior coach.)"
"Yes," said Shepherdson, briefly, "that's my place."
A more sensitive man would have trod carefully, but Coleman is not sensitive. "I believe at one moment he told you to sit down," he merrily pursued.
"What were you doing?"
What is so good about British sports television is, once again, the technology. No country is remotely as good at covering soccer matches; at blending with supreme skill the long shot with the closeup, of zooming in, then knowing the right moment to come out. When the West Germans televised the World Cup soccer tournament of 1974, they did so from such vast distances that one seemed to be watching matchsticks men.
It should be said, moreover, that Howard Cosell and a few of his breed apart, British sports television is less prone to the spineless euphemism, the oleaginous crawling, that goes on in sponsor-dominated American sports television, where everything has to be of the best in the best of all possible worlds.
When Danny Blanchflower, a fine soccer player, captain of Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup and now its team coach, came to the States in 1967 to comment for CBS on the infant North American Soccer League, an executive rebuked him for criticizing a goalkeeper.
"You said he made a mistake," the executives complained. "Couldn't you have said it was a good shot?"
Blanchflower replied that his commitment was to the truth.
"But we think, said the executive, "there's a positive truth and a negative truth."
Then there was my favorite figure in sports television, the late Steve Ellis, who would climb into the ring after a heavyweight title fight and ask the most hilarious questions, "We are not going to disturb Floyd Patterson," he cried in tones of ringing nobility, as Patterson, knocked out by Liston, lay prone on the canvas.
"What are your plans, Sonny?" he asked Liston, in the ring.
"I want to get home to my lovely wife," said Liston said.
"He wants to get home to his lovely wife! Sonny is really breaking me up here!"
I was inspired to write a sketch. The death of Caesar, Steve Ellis turns up on the steps of the Capitol. "What are your plans, Brutus?"
"I'm going to get the hell out of Rome."
"He's going to get the hell out of Rome! Brutus is really breaking me up here!"
We have, of course, our own thick-vitted as well as fawning commentators. Recently, I myself made a television documentary, "Soccer: A Decade of Change," shown initially last year in New York, and found myself sitting in a grandstand seat at Wembley Stadium, the camera 200 yards away, an intense learned 40 seconds before each take.
"Smile," they said .
"If you want a smile," I said, "get so-and-so," and named a commentator who smiles and smiles every week on soccer programs, and talks about showing "something, for the mums."
To do David Coleman justice, his smile was always a rictus. He never even tried to make it look genuine. I think that is something, if something, very small, to admire.
Brian Glanville is a sports columnist for the Sunday Times of London.