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‘Hold your nerve’: how sports commentators deliver golden moments

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Analysis: sports commentary is an artform which can transform historic sporting achievements into iconic, unforgettable moments

Being a sports commentator is often described as a dream job, but it is also a highly misunderstood profession which requires a huge level of talent, dedication and tactical self-awareness. All of those character traits were on display at this year’s European Athletics Championships, both on the track in Rome by the athletes – and in the commentary booth too.

Gold medals on the international stage are extremely rare in Irish athletics, which is why this year’s achievements have grabbed the attention of the nation and made so many headlines. The team performance of Chris O’Donnell, Rhasidat Adeleke, Thomas Barr and Sharlene Mawdsley in the 4x400m mixed relay event, followed by Ciara Mageean’s gold medal in the 1,500m final, and Adeleke’s subsequent 400m silver, have all been hailed and praised.

Those sporting achievements deserve immense recognition, but it is also noteworthy to take a step back and appreciate the collective package of how those medals were broadcast to the public. As is always the case with iconic sports moments, the role of the media was pivotal.

RTÉ’s Greg Allen delivered what will surely go down as one of the most memorable pieces of commentary for an Irish sporting event, as Ireland secured a historic gold medal in the 4x400m mixed relay event. His commentary in Rome, David Gillick’s post-race interviews, the reactions of Sonia O’Sullivan, Rob Heffernan and Derval O’Rourke, plus the careful hosting of Paul O’Flynn in studio, enhanced those medal wins and made them even more memorable.

Gillick, a two-time European Indoor champion, is a master of the post-event interview. The former Olympian always produces honest and enlightening responses from athletes after their races, regardless of success or failure. In Rome, he produced a wonderful group interview from the relay team that emphasised what their gold medal meant.

But it was Allen’s commentary at the Stadio Olimpico that really grabbed people’s attention and went viral on social media. It highlighted the level of craft and finesse that sports commentators possess when they are performing at the top of their game with microphone in hand.

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From RTÉ Sport, Sonia O’Sullivan, Rob Heffernan and Derval O’Rourke analyse the Irish relay team’s winning run

“Sharlene Mawdsley, she is grace, she is elegance, she has got a lot going for her!,” Allen bellowed, as the 25-year-old soared down the track in the final stages of the relay final. It was a good line of commentary, but the next few moments showed the difference between good commentators and great ones. The job of sports commentators is to try and match their delivery and pitch with the moment that is unfolding before them.

Going overboard looks like the commentator is over-egging things and trying to make themselves the star. Underselling a massive sporting moment with dull, dispassionate commentary can ruin the occasion too. It is an incredibly delicate balancing act for those holding the microphone, but one which Allen navigated pitch-perfect.

“Helena Ponette is not as quick as Sharlene Mawdsley,” he continued, moving through the gears of his vocal chords before delivering his killer line just as Mawdsley delivered the gold. “Just hold your nerve! SHE’S HOLDING HER NERVE! This is wonderful from Sharlene Mawdsley… A gold medal for Ireland! A huge national record. It’s not just a gold medal for Ireland… it’s a glimmering, glittering gold medal.”

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From RTÉ Sport, David Gillick talks to the gold medal winning Irish 4 x 400m mixed relay team

It was one of those wonderful occasions when the TV commentator just nails it. The commentary perfectly matches the seismic level of the occasion. The combination of words and moving pictures compliment one another, with Allen’s passionate narration enhancing the moment perfectly. Reading a transcript does not do it justice either, because it is all in the delivery and the vocal pitch which makes it so effective.

Sports commentators thread a delicate balance between not wanting to impose themselves too much on a sporting occasion, yelling wildly with self-indulgent ramblings. But they must also recognise that they need to offer a level of colour and insight. Oftentimes, less is more, and the best sports commentators know that fans are watching for the sport itself and not for the person with the microphone.

“Nobody turns the television on for the commentator, they turn the television on for the game,” said Sky Sports’ Peter Drury when asked for advice on his profession. His other tips were to “be authentic” and “do your homework and prepare.”

This is why self-awareness is pivotal for sports commentators. Andy Gray’s famous line of “let the pictures tell you everything” is a perfect summary of when commentators must keep their lips sealed. When one simple line, well delivered, can be better than a long monologue.

Ireland has been blessed with a host of brilliant sports commentators over the decades who understood the craft perfectly. From Micháels O’Hehir and Ó Muircheartaigh, to George Hamilton and “the nation holds its breath” at Italia ’90, to Jimmy Magee and his iconic description of Diego Maradona as “different class”.

In recent years, Darragh Maloney, Marty Morrissey, Ryle Nugent and Ger Canning have all delivered great lines that make World Cup, GAA championship, Six Nations and Olympic moments so memorable. Fans don’t just remember the sporting achievement in isolation, but recall the killer lines of commentary that came with them.

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From RTÉ Sport, “the nation holds its breath”, George Hamilton’s commentary on Ireland vs Romania at Italia 90

Equally though, many commentators do divide opinion. This only highlights the importance of the profession and doing it well. A good commentator can elevate a sporting occasion and make it iconic, while a bad commentator can ruin the spectacle and force fans to change channels, or even mute the television.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Media explored the impact of sports commentary on audience satisfaction. It found that today’s sports fans demand higher standards than ever before from sports broadcasters.

This year’s European Athletics Championships offered us a perfect example of just how vital good commentary is. It can enhance a great sporting moment into something much more significant and meaningful.

Allen held his nerve in the commentary booth when it mattered most

Journalists and broadcasters try to live by a mantra: “don’t make yourself the story.” While this is often good advice, it is also important to recognise those moments when commentators nail it and create moments where their words will echo down through the decades.

Mawdsley and her teammates held their nerve to deliver a famous European gold medal for Ireland. Equally memorable was Allen’s narration, who also held his nerve in the commentary booth when it mattered most.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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