John Inverdale is one of our best known sports broadcasters. He talks to Chris Bond about the power of the Olympics to bring people together and the pitfalls of being a live TV presenter.
John Inverdale has covered some of the world’s greatest sporting events - from the Olympic Games and the World Cup, through to rugby’s Six Nations and the Grand National.
As an anchorman he is one of the best in the business and his career, which spans more than 30 years, has seen him travel all over the world. It’s also taken him to some places a little closer to home. “I’ve got some great memories of coming to Yorkshire, but the most vivid was covering Britain’s Strongest Man in Scarborough in 2003 I think it was.
“I’ve watched some great sport over the years but this is my favourite professional memory of Yorkshire. The weather was amazing, the countryside was stunning and we found some great pubs in North Yorkshire. It was 10 magical days.”
He’s back in Yorkshire next month when he will be hosting a sports quiz for the homeless charity Centrepoint at Headingley stadium. But before that there’s the small matter of the Rio Olympics, which get underway this weekend.
The 58 year-old commentator will be covering rugby, rowing and boxing for the BBC and says it will bring back memories of his childhood. “I was brought up in a sporting household watching people like Mary Rand and Bob Beamon on TV, so the Olympics was always a big deal. One of my first TV memories was the Munich games in 1972 and the tragedy that unfolded. I remember David Coleman being on TV for what seemed like forever.”
The first Olympics he covered as a reporter was the Seoul Games in 1988. “I remember being pathologically excited before I went out. When I got there I was just blown away by the scale of everything, and it’s even bigger now.
“When I first walked around the Olympic village it felt as if the whole world was there. You had people from Papua New Guinea, Paraguay and Poland - it was this extraordinary gathering of humanity.”
He watched Ben Johnson’s jaw-dropping 100 metres victory and then 24 hours later was there when the Canadian sprinter was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for drugs and sent home in disgrace. “He was the first of the great cheats,” he says.
Fast forward 28 years and the Olympics finds itself mired in controversy again after the World Anti-Doping Agency’s independently commissioned report found evidence of a four-year “doping programme” involving Russian athletes across the “vast majority” of Olympic sports.
“The overwhelming majority going to Rio are people who have dedicated their lives to taekwondo or weight-lifting, or whatever it is they do. It’s a dream they have carried with them from an early age and this will be the single greatest moment of their lives.”
However, the doping scandal raises concerns about the scale of the problem. “If it had not been for this whistleblower would we really have known about the Russians? How many would have been in Rio and we would have been none the wiser?” he says. “In sport you have to believe what are you are watching is genuine otherwise we all might as well give up and go home.”
But while this has cast a shadow in the run-up to Rio 2016, the Olympics - as we saw four years ago in London - still possess that unique ability to bring people together. Harnessing the power of television it brings the great feats of our sportsmen and women to a global audience.
“It’s the greatest party on earth and in Rio people will see great performances in a stunning location - the Olympics have a unique healing power when bad things are happening in the world.”
It is a sporting spectacle like no other, capturing both the ecstasy and despair of those taking part. It can be an emotional experience even for hardened broadcasters, as Inverdale found out when he interviewed British rowers Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase live on TV just after they were pipped to the gold medal in the lightweight men’s double sculls four years ago.
Breathless following their exertions, the disconsolate pair apologised for letting everyone down as Inverdale, his voice cracking with emotion, said: “You let no one down at all”. It was incredibly moving to watch and brought home just how much the Olympics matters to those taking part.
“Most of us have good days and bad days in our jobs but there’s always tomorrow. For these two it came down to six minutes on one day in August,” says Inverdale. “When you’ve dedicated so much of your life to this one moment of course it’s going to be devastating. I knew these guys since Beijing [and the 2008 Olympics] so it’s hard not to get emotional. You react as a human being first and a reporter second.”
The British pair had been favourites to win gold and the fact they didn’t is a reminder there are no certainties when it comes to sport. “Usain Bolt is the hot favourite to win the 200 metres at Rio but there’s no guarantee he will win. It’s the same with the Brownlee brothers. People will be staggered if one of them doesn’t get a medal, if not a gold, but there are no gimmes. If we knew who was going to win there would be no point watching.”
Inverdale has shown himself to be equally adept commentating on a variety of sports but even the most experienced and professional broadcasters aren’t immune from making mistakes. In 2013, he was criticised for an on-air gaffe when he said that tennis star Marion Bartoli was “not much of a looker”.
He tried to clarify his “ham-fisted” comment and wrote to Bartoli to apologise, but it highlighted the perils of live broadcasting. “If you’re on air for hundreds of hours a year you are bound to make mistakes,” he says. “There’s no script, no auto-cue, it’s just what’s in your head.
“I was covering the Open Golf Championships recently and I was broadcasting for 10 hours. Now at some point you’re going to say something that isn’t very bright, but it’s about how you respond.”
Despite the inherent pitfalls, Inverdale says covering the world’s biggest sporting tournaments like Wimbledon remains a tremendous privilege.
“There are times during the year when I think it would be nice to watch it on telly or go along as a punter. But come Monday morning when the tournament starts and I drive down Marryat Road through part of Wimbledon Village and catch a glimpse of the All-England Club there’s nowhere else I would rather be.”
It will be the same when he heads out to Rio. “The moment I arrive there and see the Copacabana and Sugarloaf Mountain I’ll be thinking, ‘this is Rio de Janeiro, it’s the Olympic Games, there’s nothing bigger than this and you’re unbelievably lucky to be here.”
John Inverdale hosts Centrepoint’s Ultimate Sports Quiz, at Headingley Stadium on September 8. For more details email Faye Edmondson at firstname.lastname@example.org.