The Olympics has been a fantastic event with the general public glued to their TVs and the BBC iPlayer watching sports they didn’t even know existed just 2 weeks ago.

Britain – a proud sailing nation

Which leads me to my passion; sailing. It is questionable whether it should be an Olympic sport, when the criteria seem to be “will it excite the public and give more viewers and hence more coverage for the sponsors.” Sailing fails on every level based on those criteria, plus it is extremely costly to stage and televise the event.

But it is not for debate here as sailing will be in 2016 Olympics with a few changes in the classes. Sadly, for the 2012 Olympics there has been widespread disappointment in the sailing commentary from both punters and enthusiasts. There are 9 pages of “comments” on the Yachts&Yachting forum on the discussion on Olympic Commentators, here.

Firstly, it has to be said that commentating on every Olympic sport is difficult. The audience has a massive spread of experience ranging from those with only a passing interest in the sport with no knowledge of the rules or how to play, all the way through to enthusiasts who want to watch their heroes and pick up on nuances of tactics and technique. But everyone’s interested in the personalities and the gossip.

Tough job, but that is no excuse?

Sailing is even more difficult than most sports. Firstly because not everyone understands how to sail, and therefore the starts, beats and downwind angles are confusing. Secondly the rules and therefore the tactics are complex.  Combine these and it makes it very difficult to explain to people what is happening on the race course. That is really no excuse and most of the criticism I have heard and read has been aimed at Richard Simmonds who has covered the racing and lead the commentating.

Why has it been so poor?

Firstly, it has failed to address the needs of any audience, no matter what level of expertise. For those with little knowledge in sailing, the commentating has been either confusing or patronizing in explaining the basics but then technical terms or jargon have been thrown in that further confuses the viewers. For the experienced sailors the commentators do not have sufficient knowledge to add any value.

There has not been enough research into the athletes to be able fill the time between starts with interesting background information on their personal histories. So the audience has not really engaged with the athletes, apart from the generic coverage of Ben Ainslie. We have some highly photogenic sailors with great personalities and stories to tell.

Looking back on 2012 coverage, it is has been a poor use of the BBC’s money, but also it is limiting the number of young people, potential medal winners, inspired to go sailing. Instead they will go swimming, cycling, boxing or rowing following the highly publicised role models in these sports. In short, poor commentating is damaging our medal hopes for 2016 and beyond.

So how do we improve this?

This is not about knocking down people’s sandcastles, build building newer, better ones.

Firstly we need to apply the thinking and preparation of any professional speaker. Who is the audience? What is their level of knowledge? What is their interest? Do I have the expertise to have ‘permission’ to talk to this audience? Do I have enough stories and insights to engage the audience?

Then we need to think creatively about how we approach commentating, based on the answers to these questions. Here are some thoughts.

Why not have a website or area accessed by the “Red Button” where sailing and rules are explained, which can be accessed at any time.  So anyone joining part way through the race can quickly get up to speed.

Then have 2 levels of commentating, so people get to decide what level they want to listen to for each of the races

  • a jargon free channel for the novices where the commentator has the ability to make the complex sound simple and can work with the production company and animation
  • a channel for experienced sailors drawing on the experts possibly working with coaches from each class to provide real insights into the equipment, selection, preparation and racing.

For the general background, between races and post-race interviews and discussion there needs to be only one channel.

The commentators need to be more closely hooked into the umpires and race team so that infringements and finishing positions can be explained to the watching public. The result of Iain Percy’s medal race was not clear for some time after the finish, and the infringement that lost the Dutch Finn sailor his medal in the last 50m of the medal race was inaccurately called several times.

Finally, the TV channel or production company need to work more closely with commentators so that they don’t simply fill in time between races with random sailing clips which the commentators bravely try to explain. It is far better to cut to some information or footage on personal stories, or some relevant anecdotes from the commentators.

We cannot wait until 2016

Sailing is going to be in the Olympics in 2016, and with 5 medals in 2012 and continued lottery investment we hope there will be an increased interest. Certainly there is more sailing on the various TV channels. For the future of sailing we need to improve the quality and approach taken to commentating. That means rethinking the format and the people used. And that is not just for 2016, but for commentating over the next 4 years.

Final thought

We are a great sailing nation winning medals consistently at every Olympics. Isn’t it now time that commentating stepped up to the mark?


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