Veteran broadcaster shows deft touch with colourful and unique commentary


TV VIEW: “I BET there’s a tear in your eye wherever you’re watching this,” says Jimmy Magee as we watch a triumphant Katie Taylor. “There’s nothing wrong with tears; tears are often shed in joy.”

Jimmy Magee’s confident assertions often transcend the here and now of sports commentary. In this Olympics as we watch the competitors ducking, dodging and diving in the ring, an almost equally compelling parallel battle was taking place in the commentary box between the 77-year-old Magee and dead air.

Jimmy Magee isn’t just a sports commentator, he’s a repository of national memory (and I know I’m sounding a bit like Jimmy Magee as I write this). He doesn’t just comment on what’s happening before your eyes (though he sometimes does this with style: “the Russian rushes in!” is a favourite of mine). No, for the broadcasting veteran, individual sporting contests symbolise all sporting conflicts and all sporting conflicts point outward to the drama of small-town Ireland in particular and to world history in general.

So while you might think you’re watching a boxing match, in fact, you’re on a journey with Magee across time and space (from small town Bray to the Russian army), as he drops facts and figures like a leaking human internet.

As he comments on the lives of beloved Irish Olympians he happily flits from childhood (“[Katie listens] to her father as she has since she was a little baby but this time it was something more than ‘eat up your dinner’ ”) to hypothetical retirements (“one day she may be a trainer coach . . . but she probably won’t have anyone as good as herself to train or coach”). Yes, while Taylor is fighting the fight of her career, Magee is pitching a biopic.

He is also skilled at distractingly contorting well-worn cliches. “I’m just looking up to see if the roof is still on,” he said as the fans cheered Taylor’s entrance to the Olympic stadium for her final bout. Later he describes her as a “modest young lady with her head the same size as it was when she was a child”, which is basically to stress that not only is she not big-headed, but that she’s freakishly unbigheaded.

And while Taylor may have the head of a small child, she must have the hands of a man. She certainly punches like one, or so Lennox Lewis told Magee during some unimaginable summit. Who are we to contradict this silly assertion (between the pair of them they’d pummel our bodies with punches and our minds with artfully contorted metaphors)?

Magee also loves playing games with scale. Zou Shiming versus Paddy Barnes (characterised repeatedly as “the little man from Belfast”) becomes not China versus Ireland but “China versus Belfast”. And his geographical flights of fancy even lead him to embody local characteristics like a gnomic everyman. “They’re chanting ‘Paudy! Paudy!’ with a definite northern accent to it,” he says, inflecting that definite northern accent himself.

Later he evokes a bit more local history to describe the fight. “It’s a rip-roarer, an absolutely titanic struggle if that’s the right thing to say about a Belfast man,” he says, before moments later running away with the metaphor as Paddy Barnes checks his gloves: “Make sure the rivets are tight and away you go!”

Ultimately, for Magee sport is a metaphor for everything and everything is potentially a metaphor for sport. And he isn’t talking to contemporary viewers but to posterity. On Wednesday he admitted as much.

“Whether you’re watching this on television and looking at this later on a DVD or as somebody’s prize collection,” he said, during Taylor’s semi-final bout, “I should think you’re happy to be living in the year 2012 when a 26-year-old Irish woman from Bray in Co Wicklow came to London for the games of the 30th Olympiad in the company of Zaur Antia the Georgian coach and her own beloved father.”

And then, as is his wont, he returned from the mythically global to the locally specific with a final metaphor: “And still one stop to go on the Dart line.”

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