The Irish are often said to be the best sports fans in the world. We get open letters from host nations at tournaments, double-page spreads in French newspapers, and, in one particularly memorable gesture, a suite of billboards declaring gratitude from the city of Poznan.
Just this summer, the European community appeared to sit rapt in admiration once more, as we embraced our footballing opponents in chants, fixed cars for the elderly, proffered lullabies to babies, and even serenaded mildly uncomfortable female police officers.
TV and social media were abuzz with tales of Irish fandom that put every other nation to shame, although the behaviour of some fans didn’t so much set the bar low as smash the bar’s tables and throw chairs through its windows. It’s also true that some coverage did occasionally stray into less comfortable territory, less “these Irish fans seem pretty cool”, more “these animals think they are people”, like a bandy legged chimp dressed in dungarees and a propeller cap. But, even with all that hyperbole, we can all happily accept the slight condescension that comes as a minor side effect to our being considered the soundest group of fans on the planet.
Roy Keane would certainly disagree, but possibly our best asset is our ability to marshal this amount of goodwill and excitement for sports we’re not very good at. By those standards, we should have a lot to look forward to at this year’s Olympic Games, broadcast across RTÉ and the BBC’s multiple platforms from this weekend onward. This time round, we’ll have 77 competitors taking on the world’s finest in the heat of Rio de Janeiro.
If we do have our sights on winning a few medals, the best bets appear to be in boxing and equestrian – “fighting and riding” as they are conveniently shorthanded – or, following the example of golf and rugby 7s, we could just keep lobbying for the inclusion of sports we’re better at. To be clear: I’m not suggesting that we have to develop a sport in which each contestant takes turns to punch their opponent’s horse; I’m just saying we should be open to all options.
In any case, both broadcasters’ coverage begins with the opening ceremony tonight. Traditionally an overblown and pompous affair in which nations are asked to parody themselves in the broadest strokes possible, Danny Boyle’s 2012 opener threw an unexpected spanner in the works by actually being quite good. By turns whimsical and serious, silly and sincere, it was a joy to watch, and one hopes this year’s doesn’t suffer too much by comparison. Although, considering the BBC’s coverage is likely to mention London’s ceremony roughly once every three seconds, that might be fairly unlikely.
For their part, the Beeb announced its Olympics with a lavish suite of CG animations depicting jungle animals swinging their way to Rio, a presentation with all the bang and polish you’d expect from Britain’s national broadcaster. RTÉ, needing no such pomp and circumstance, coolly issued a stripped-back video of their journalists giving us tips for the tournament on the concrete outside Montrose. Sure, most of the BBC’s commentators are medal winners in, say, the pentathlon or canoe slalom, but many of RTÉ’s journalists appear perfectly capable of pronouncing all those words too.
In the end, slick proficiency may not be a substitute for charm, something RTÉ’s coverage has always had in spades, whether in the form of the dearly departed Bill O’Herlihy gamely chuckling his way through foreign surnames, or Marty Morrissey screaming his head off like someone who’s ever had an interest in volleyball. The BBC, for all its medal- bedecked pundits and swooping, futuristic desks, seems vapid and bloodless by comparison; its studios are a forest of forced smiles and polyester shirts, gleaming and shiny under those bright studio lights.
Although a consummate presenter, John Inverdale strikes me as someone who DVRs Time Team when he goes on holiday, a man who surely has an entire wardrobe set aside for his fleeces. Meanwhile, Sue Barker’s uncanny jollity is often delightful, but the occasional glint of tired sadness in her eyes resembles nothing so much as the perpetual, nervy cheer of a kidnapped heiress long since brainwashed by her captors. Either way you’d best get used to it, as for 17 days, coverage of the proceedings will be nigh-on inescapable, with nearly 2,500 hours to be broadcast on TV, radio and online.
Ironically, one BBC sporting event which has not been rendered vaguely robotic and lifeless is Robot Wars, a reboot currently basking in the triumph of its return to BBC2. The show is one of those wonders of the late 1990s that we failed to appreciate and so had cruelly taken from us, like minidiscs, Zig & Zag, or an ongoing visual record of all the bomber jackets owned by Jennifer Lopez.
Nerdy, thrilling and self-aware, Robot Wars balances an earnest focus on its battling bots with a knowing wink toward those who might find the entire premise, and its participants, faintly ridiculous. To this end, the show is greatly aided by deft turns from its new hosts, Dara Ó Briain and Angela Scanlon, both of whom appear to be having as much fun of the contestants themselves.
Like Marty Morrissey or Bill O’Herlihy before them, they don’t fake their enthusiasm and rejoice in the trials and tribulations of the show’s competitors, human or otherwise. Proof, once again, that great event television needn’t depend solely on spectacle and expense, so long as it pays enough attention to the nuts and bolts.