Sunday, 21 March 2010

In praise of the lesser-known sportspeople

For some time I have been following the career of Chrissie Wellington.

Heard of her? No? That is a shame, for she is probably one of the foremost sportsmen or women out there at the moment. She had broken a host of records in an exceptionally hard sport - ironman triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a marathon run) - after having only started in the sport in her late twenties. She had never even ridden a bike until she was 27.

Since then she has set a world record for the ironman distance of 8 hours, 31 minutes and 59 seconds; won her first three ironman world championships (the first less than a year after having turned professional); and remains undefeated at the ironman distance. She deserves much more attention (see James Cracknell's piece in the Daily Telegraph).

Just think about that for a moment; I would find it hard to swim 30 lengths, yet alone 2.4 miles. After that, it is a 112-mile bike ride (the most I have ever done is London to Cambridge at about 55 miles - it took me all day). Then, finally, a marathon. Anyone who completes an ironman triathlon deserves congratulation; it is an amazing feat. Yet Chrissie Wellington won her first one!

Quite frankly, she is an inspiration. Yet I have never seen her mentioned on BBC News; the only TV coverage I have seen of her has been on the sports programmes that are on Channel 4 on Sunday mornings. Her name deserves to be as well-known as most Premiership footballers.

It is terrible the way the media focus on certain sports - for instance football, rugby, snooker, athletics - at the expense of other events. I even include my beloved Formula One in this. The mainstream media focuses far too much on a narrow range of sports. True; these sports tend to have the biggest viewership, but it becomes a chicken-and-egg situation; if it is on TV, then it is more likely to have a higher profile than if it is not!

Some sports lend themselves to TV broadcast more readily than others - a football match is usually 90 minutes long, sometimes 120 (with extra time), and only in rare conditions longer. This means that a nice 2-hour TV slot can be allocated. The same thing occurs in Formula 1 - the race is limited to a maximum of two hours (a limit that was reached in the rain-sodden 2009 Malaysian GP last year).

An Ironman Triathlon, however, would be over eight hours long - far too long to maintain a viewer's interest. For this reason, webcasting may be the best way forward for such sports. However, this does excuse the broadcasters for not mentioning these sports in their summary broadcasts. Chrissie Wellington in particular deserves much greater praise and attention than she currently gets.

An interesting exception to this is Trans-World sport, which is broadcast on Sunday mornings on Channel 4 in the UK. The owners, IMG, also broadcast a similar program worldwide. This gives short snippets of all the sports news of the previous week - a typical episode will detail everything from golf, motorsport and skiing to extreme sports. It also interviews up-and-coming sportsmen, and has segments on rare or unusual sports, such as Turkish Oil Wrestling. It is an excellent programme, as it gives an overview into sports without going overly into them. Even Sencan seems to enjoy it. Unfortunately it has recently been changed from a one-hour to a thirty-minute timespan, and many of the interviews and unusual sports have been removed.

Sometimes people do break through into the mass media's attention for some reason - Mark Beaumont's record-breaking cycle ride around the world (and his recently-broadcast trip down America), or cancer-sufferer Jane Tomlinson. Both did amazing things and managed to get mainstream publicity. Lance Armstrong's seven victories at the Tour de France was made even more remarkable after his recovery from testicular cancer.

But these people are the exception. Mark Beaumont is an interesting case - he was not particularly a hardcore cyclist before he decided to go and smash the world record for cycling around the globe, yet he had the mental perseverance to go for it. Hundreds of thousands - or perhaps millions - of people in the UK could have done it physically with a little training. The difference is he had the mental willpower and bravery to actually do it.

So what I would like is to see the broadcasters (and especially the BBC) giving publicity to more obscure sports, especially where there is a great human-interest story behind it. The vast majority of people in this country could do amazing things in sports and activities; mostly it just requires the sheer mental determination to do it. In this way, Chrissie Wellington is an excellent role model.

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