Saturday’s horrific events at White Hart Lane brought back some unpleasant memories from some of the darker moments of commentary career.
Along with all UK sports fans I am hoping that Fabrice Muamba continues to improve and my best wishes are with his friends and family. Likewise I cannot praise the medical team attending on Saturday enough. Being married to a doctor I know just how important prompt and expert medical care is in cases like this and speed of attention almost certainly saved Muamba’s life and has given him the best possible chance to make a recovery.
Channel hopping between the 6 Nations and ESPN, I happened to join ESPN in the immediate aftermath with the presenting team being placed into the most difficult of broadcasting positions. I thought the whole team did an excellent job, remaining hopeful, whilst never flinching from the severity of the situation. Jon Champion has been criticised by some for some of his more direct remarks, but I have two comments on this. Firstly, there was a rare honesty to ESPN’s coverage, this was a life threatening incident and no attempt was made to present this as anything else. Secondly incidents such as this are incredibly rare for a sports commentator, especially in a sport where intense physical contact and high speed incidents are not part and parcel of the sport.
Finding the right words for incidents such as this is unquestionably the hardest part of the job for any broadcaster. After all it is one thing to add a commentary after the event or where such an incident could be anticipated (as in a news report) but quite another to do it on the spot when the plan for the afternoon was to cover a sporting event.
The ESPN team had my whole sympathy because I have had the misfortune to be part of the commentary team at an event where a fatal accident has happened. Likewise I have commentated on several incidents where there have been serious injuries and concern for the driver involved. Danger and risk have always been one of the core attractions of motor sport for competitors and spectators alike, and whilst there remain a number of incidents at any given race meeting advances in safety standards mean that these are generally of a rough and tumble nature with serious injuries the exception rather than the rule.
I will never forget the day at Thruxton when Jeff Leadley was killed racing in the GT Cup. I fortunately did not see the incident, I was in the pitlane with Ian Titchmarsh providing the main commentary. As on Saturday, medical attention of the highest quality was on the scene immediately and all the officials of the meeting performed impeccably. Tragically in this instance there was little that could be done. After a four hour delay where we periodically kept the crowd informed of events the meeting resumed for a handful of further races. Finding the right words and tone was amongst the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
A more personally disturbing incident was Chris van der Drift’s accident at Brands Hatch in 2010. In the event Chris escaped with comparatively minor injuries following a monumental accident coming down Pilgrims Drop. Again I was covering the pitlane, and as a result had interviewed Chris moments earlier on the grid, which made the image of his destroyed car in a garage monitor all the more shocking. The following hour was incredibly difficult. Ian Titchmarsh and myself were continuing to broadcast whilst also trying to find out information about Chris’s condition and when the action would get back underway.
I have also being doing the lead commentary on two occasions where there have been massive accidents and again the outcome was likely to be unclear.
The first of these was my second ever live TV broadcast of the World Series by Renault for Setanta in 2008. Fighting for the lead in Barcelona Marco Bonanomi did a backflip into the scoreboard on the main straight following a brush of wheels with another car. Agonisingly Marco’s head was slumped for several seconds after the car came to a halt, having initially landed upside down. For what seemed an eternity, although really only 10 seconds, I tried to fill time whilst waiting to see if he’d walk away. Fortunately Marco escaped without a scratch and joined me in the commentary box the following day.
The other occasion was Robert Wolk’s multiple cartwheel into Paddock Hill Bend in the 2010 Formula Ford Festival. Such was the magnitude of the accident that it seemed almost impossible that he would walk away. Again, it was a great relief when he walked away, but not after several moments of anxiety and time filling.
For myself, and I’m sure many other commentators, providing coverage for the sports we love is the next best thing to competing, but as Saturday proved, there are times when the fun stops and our passion becomes something altogether less enjoyable.