Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
29 July 2016
The words ‘Living the Dream’ made up the official slogan of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The catchphrase certainly applied for me – AGAIN! – as here I was packing up and setting off for my ninth summer Olympic Games.
From being a wide-eyed young lad aged 25 and working for the old NZ Broadcasting Corporation on my first trip in 1972 to being a 65 year old in 2012 (and called ‘Grumpy’ by his grandkids) a lot of Olympic water had flowed under my bridge of life. But yet again as the suitcase closed there was still a great sense of anticipation as I flew out of Auckland on July 22 2012.
My travelling mate was old friend Brendan Telfer. He too was off to his tenth Olympics (Peter Montgomery was also flying somewhere to his tenth Olympic yachting event). We three do not make a big thing about it but we cannot find anyone in our country who has been to more.
On arrival in the big smoke Brendan and I checked into the Barbican Hotel and I was given the stiflingly hot room, 1016 as I recall. There is always a sense of expectancy when you arrive at a location and you know you are going to stay for three or four weeks. This hotel was nice enough though my room turned out be so oppressive I phoned down for a fan as there was clearly no air-conditioning. One arrived soon enough but several times in my lengthy stay it mysteriously disappeared and each time I had to ring again to get it back. The things you remember.
But enough of that, I generally try to put up with what I am given when I check in, only rarely asking for change.
[A pause here in my London narrative for a slightly dodgy story from my past; one time in Punta del Este, Uruguay, on a sevens rugby tour at the check-in desk I specifically asked for a ‘non-smoking room’ and was given the keys for a room on the second floor of a massive tower-block hotel. They said I would be happy there. When I entered the room I was immediately struck by a strange odour of cigars, or something similar, in the air. I was about to storm down to reception when I peeked through the curtains at the scorching afternoon. When I discovered my room was low and over-looking the hotel swimming pool, around which were lounging some partially-clad but extremely ‘interesting sights’ I quickly decided to accept my malodorous room selection destiny!]
Commentating at the London Olympics was not in any way a repeat of the earlier regular style of coverage I had been used to. This time I was not working for TVNZ, instead, on the first day, I was handed my broadcast team uniform of Springbok green colours on which the letters OBS were marked.
My employer instead was The Olympic Broadcast Services group. Essentially they are an organisation created by the IOC to originate and transmit international broadcast coverage of every event of the Games. Their brief was to put neutral multi-language coverage onto each event. Telfer and I, and others like John McBeth and Glen Larmer from New Zealand joined the OBS team too. We got the gig mostly because of reputation I guess but also in part because the New Zealand accent is widely thought to be neutral enough so as to be understood across the globe.
There were a number of other major differences for us though.
The London Games of 2012 turned out to be the Olympics I travelled to where I didn’t actually see any Games at all! All of my commentary, and it was for hours and hours every day, was done from a small room without an outside window which was not much bigger than a phone box. In front of me was a medium-sized HD TV set with a set of headphones, a results computer, and another computer screen relaying direct word-progress from the event I was calling (something akin to blogging I guess).
I was assigned for the 12 days, straight after the Opening Ceremony, to do tennis coverage from the Wimbledon courts, a really privileged allocation I thought.
The reality was I never once saw any action with the ‘naked eye.’ I never once thrilled to seeing the famed Roger Federer backhand or the Andy Murray shouts in exasperation, or indeed personal admiration of Maria Sharapova’s ‘athleticism.’
Or the thrill of being at last at the famed green sward of the Wimbledon Courts.
While I did go out for a 'recce' the day before the tuornament started, all I saw of actual 'live' play was exactly the same as you did, dear reader, from your place. The only difference from you was that I was in the Olympic city and I was doing my thing from ten miles away. I shouted tennis words at an off-tube commentary TV screen in a building called the IBC (International Broadcast Centre.
There were other major changes from my previous trips too, some of which made the commentary days this time very long and yes, quite often Olympic-bloody-tedious. And testing in concentration. But do not get me wrong. I loved every minute of all the challenges.
There was this new thing we all struck and had to adapt to called ‘time-shifted’ commentary. This was where my co-tennis commentator, a very good wee Aussie bloke called Mark Doran and I world watch tennis matches on the studio screens. Then we would wait for decisions from higher-up the producers level about when they would make decisions on which matches might look best on late-night international replay feeds. Then they would assign Mark and I to take turns at calling the matches.
Put it another way; Mark and I would watch, say, Roger Federer play his second round match ‘live’, then Serena Williams would come onto centre court to play hers. All good stuff. But no commentary would be put on those matches at all. That invariably was because all of the other sports of the 28 at an Olympic Games were involved the commentary booths too.
Mark and I would also see four or five other matches unfold during an afternoon session. Then if it was decided that the Federer and Serena matches would be best to be replayed in the later assigned tennis time slots on the satellite feeds time Mark would call one and I would do the other. We broadcast them knowing exactly what had happened in each hours earlier. ‘Time shifting’ commentary was acting of Hollywood proportions. Nothing surprised us at all because we knew what was coming. We had seen it hours before!
Another catch was that the matches often went out on screen late at night from London, meaning that by say 11 p.m we were often two very tired, and often very hungry, commentators as we raced to catch the 2a.m bus back to the hotel! And next day it was again up early, and after a running breakfast, back onto the bus system (with sometimes another power nap) to go back to the IBC where we watched more tennis and still more tennis.
Complicated? Sure it was but that’s the way it was to cover, not just tennis, but an equal time offered to the hopeful other sporting codes.
Let me tell you about the ‘Amsterdam red light’ districts of our Olympic set up. Basically we commentators existed in an outer working office. At any time there were about 60 or 70 of us sitting in front of standard internet access screens. We were sporting commentators in three languages; England, Spanish or Arabic. A common sight would be to suddenly see a man or woman leap from their chair, gather papers, food, drinks etc and hurriedly head into a narrow corridor into which there were about 20 doors. Above each door was a light.
If the light was switched on it would be coloured red – as in the infamous Dutch red-light district. But unlike Amsterdam the Olympic red light was not a signal to enter for a good time. Instead it was to say ‘stay away - there’s a commentary going on here!’ We all soon got used to the system.
[Another sidebar story; One time when I was doing an athletic field event at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, I was tucked away in an off-tube booth, going for it hell for leather. I had been there for hours and had sipped away at my bottle of water until it was empty and I had also nibbled through a sandwich and some biscuits. Only crumbs remained on a plate. These things are standard to take into a booth as many sports events of course are open-ended when they are live.
In Delhi on that day suddenly the booth door opened very quietly and there stood Murray Needham our TVNZ Games producer and with him, no less, was the Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand.
He was being shown around the studios by Murray. I nodded for them to come in. I even switched my microphone off for a few seconds and was introduced. I apologised for the mess of the bottle, the crumbed plate and my papers scattered about. The two men stayed for a minute or two then left and I carried on with the commentary action.
Maybe ten minutes later the booth door was nudged open once more and there stood the G-G again, this time on his own. What was this I thought?
In his hands was another plate. On this one were more snacks for me and a bottle of water. I mouthed a very grateful thanks, he just grinned and nodded and the door shut behind him. I loved that little guy and marvelled how such nice things can still happen in the world!]
At London in 2012 soon enough Mark and I had battled through to the final’s days of tennis. And for that significant action the coverage was brought forward by the OBS producers Kostas Kapatais and Helen Borobakas. It was to be a full-on live telecast featuring Serena Williams and Maris Sharapova in the women’s and Roger Federer and Andy Murray in the men’s. So that was different. Live TV became the preference!
I was given the privilege of doing both singles calls; Mark was to do the doubles and mixed events.
But there was no change to the hope of actually going out to the Wimbledon Centre court to commentate. There the only few broadcast positions went to the massive rights-holding countries like BBC, NBC, and European countries etc.
Never mind though, the OBS calls went to audiences of 100s of millions, including as it turned out, to New Zealand. I was not working for the Kiwi rights-holders, SkyNZ, in any way but as they had not sent a tennis caller to London therefore my commentary was on all New Zealand sets. That is if interested viewers had SkyTV. My family sent messages of good luck etc beforehand and after too. Which was very nice.
When I look back now there was only one time in the 12 days of tennis when I was really disadvantaged by not being on site at Wimbledon. That moment came after Serena had won her gold medal match over Maria. I thought my call had gone well enough. Tennis is an easy event to cover from a ten mile distance, as the court is compact and very little happens outside of its enclosed arena. Back in the ‘Red Light’ corridor of the IBC we had all the crowd effects and umpires calls pumped into our headsets; plus any grunts, groans (or complaints) from the players. With acting you are really there!
But the only confusing TV glitch for me came when the three women’s medallists stepped forward for the victory ceremony. As Serena stood atop the podium with one hand fingering her gold medal and the other over her heart her tear-filled eyes turned upwards to see the American flag go up its flagpole. It was that wonderful Olympic moment.
But then she started to smile, then giggle and her hand instead went over her mouth. Something was happening wrongly and the TV cameras were staying dutifully on her mounting embarrassed, and clearly stifled, giggling. For me doing the live broadcast it was fortunate that the Star Spangled Banner carried the coverage for most of the seconds which followed.
It turned out a gusty wind had suddenly arrived; it had picked up the famous flag and lifted it around itself. And then a couple more times too. Serena thought it was funny – and I guess it was. The only other camera shot seen on the telecast at that time was a ceremonial soldier trying to instantly find a way to unfurl the flap.
Look, it was minor, very minor and meant little. I just remember it as an incident; apart from it there was no reason why tennis commentary could not all be done from far away from the courts in future.
The finals were truly exciting to do; Serena had taken just 63 minutes for her win and Andy Murray an equally decisive three-set win over Federer. I had a lot of good commentary background on famous Scottish Gold Medal winners of the past from my Scottish mate Robyn Murray (‘Sir Chris Hay and Eric Liddell – pronounced ‘Liddle.’’ said Robyn firmly down the phone from Tillicoultry, up by Stirling.) so I was really pleased to get that in.
So that was the end of my Olympics; no more for me to do – or so I thought.
As I was packing things up Kostas Kapatais, the big boss and a lovely bloke, approached me. ‘Keith, nice work today, now tell me - what are you doing tomorrow?’
I swallowed hard. I had a train ticket in my pocket for a holiday with my friends in Scotland. But a man has to do what he has to do.
It turned out Kostas needed an English language commentator for one morning of – wait for it – water polo!
I had done the sport at the Huia Pool in Lower Hutt many years before but with that wily old Cantabrian, and water polo maniac, Ray Cairns at my side. He had known everything that was going on. This would be different. And tough.
That was because the game dear Kostas required commentary for Croatia versus Kazakhstan! Aaarrrgh!
Of course I delayed my train ride to Scotland by a day and accepted the commentary call.
So if you heard it ladies and gentlemen spare some sympathy for the commentator of that game. But I found out that I was a very good water-polo caller.
I went into the red-light corridor with little or no preparation time – and only vague memories of how the noble sport of water-polo went.
But read on about how I was saved from a probable commentary disaster by the digital world of today!
This gets complicated – so again – stay with me!
In each booth as I have told you; was a TV set, a results monitor and a kind of blogging screen sending out word descriptions of each part of every event taking place. As my water polo commentary started and I looked at the action from the pool I soon worked out that the words from the blogger who was clearly at poolside were getting to my line of sight an absolute but clear split second quicker than the TV vision of the same action did. The TV picture, as we all know, had to travel thousands of miles into space to a satellite from the same pool location, probably only metres from the blogger, but the visual signal arrived in my little hutch slower than the words.
I was suddenly able to ID complicated names of players (well you try Croatia v Kazakhstan in any sport!) ahead of what they were about to do - and also the nuances of the game before it happened! Trying to do the commentary off the TV vision was only a blur-splash that only a seasoned watcher could untangle.
You think I am tinny and blessed with good fortune? You bet I am! Anyone ‘Living the Dream’ deserves good luck don’t you think?
One more story to tell; this one of a reflective nature.
After my tenth Olympic Games coverage did finally end with the water polo (and Kostas had thanked me and said ‘come with me to Rio in four years time..’) I did make my train ride from London to Scotland the next day.
And I was met up at Stirling by the aforementioned Robyn Murray. He and I have been mates since we two strangers debated rugby in a bar in Edinburgh in 1978. He and I, and wives and sundry kids, have had regular and endearing exchanges over the years. I was the MC at Avril and Robyn’s daughter Pamela’s marriage a few years ago; my wife Anne made and iced the wedding cake. It’s that sort of relationship.
That sunny day in Stirling, Robyn said to me ‘we’re not going straight home; we’ll go instead via Dunblane. It’s not far. It’s where Andy Murray came from and they’ve done a very nice thing there today. The Royal Mail has come in overnight and is painting all the letter-posting pillar boxes gold in the town squares around Britain where Olympic gold medallists originally came from.’
So we visited the quiet town of Dunblane and I queued up with many other excited people for a posed shot with the gold letter box. One could sense a real buzz of pride in the town for what ‘their Andy’ had achieved. The locals were clearly thrilled given that for many years they had still reeled from the shocking day in 1996 when a deranged man by the name of Thomas Hamilton had entered their local primary school and shot dead 16 kids, one teacher and then himself. The massacre had shocked the world.
Andy Murray had been at that school that day, hiding out of sight. He could very well have been a victim too. Now he was cheering up the town that had something to wildly applaud with tears instead of sorrow.
But it was not totally a great and openly celebratory day. As Robyn and I drove out of town he said, ‘just up here is the tennis court where Andy played as a kid.’
And there it was in the afternoon sun with kids and tennis rackets running all over its three or four courts.
To me it was a wonderful sight. And when I saw a big sign across the front of the clubhouse celebrating Andy Murray having once played at that club as a kid and now being a Gold medal winner, I said to Robyn, ‘ Stop the car mate, there’s a photo opportunity here to go with a poignant sports story.’
So we did stop and I stood at the end of the wire-netting and clicked off four or five shots of the kids, the sign, the clubhouse etc.
I had just turned to return to the car when I heard a loud voice. It came from a bustling red-faced women running towards me. ‘You! YOU!’ she hollered,’ What do you think you’re doin’?’
I was taken aback at her agitation but she gave me a very loud and hostile ‘clear off YOU!’ She added, ‘no one is EVER allowed to take pictures here; so clear off!’
I attempted a protest but what could I do? I knew the story of the Dunblane Massacre. Though it was 16 years earlier and though Murray had won his gold, clearly their town’s disciplines for security for their kids had been put in place and were always to be sternly protected. No matter what.
Robyn and I muttered and mumbled as we drove away from her rage – but we understood I guess.
Until now I have never used the photos of the kids and clubhouse. Actually they were just simple shots, as you'll see. I've put one of them up on this website now. Time has passed 'O Protective Woman! but I guess you were doing the right thing..
But the one taken in town by the pillar box with the Dunblane Hairdresser’s in the background I will always show with real pride. Its a great memory of the biggest Olympic moment I personally had in London 2012. The Games I commentated on - when I never saw much at all!
On Eden Park on this day in 1966 the All Blacks beat the Lions 24-11 and completed a 4-0 test series whitewash.
Queensland and Australia
86 internationals for Australia 1991-2001
One of Australian rugby’s most recognizable and powerful rugby personalities, the modest, lanky Queenslander John Eales had a career at the top which spanned more than a decade and included playing in three World Cups. That in itself is a superb achievement but when the winning of the World Cup twice, as well as being captain once, are added in, his world status is further elevated.
John Eales was a 21 year old in just his second season of senior football when he played his first test on his home ground of Ballymore in Brisbane, against Wales in July of 1991. The Wallabies won 63-6 and followed that with a 40-15 win six days later in the second test in Sydney. A fortnight later and young Eales had outjumped the fast-rising New Zealand lock forward Ian Jones as Australia stormed to a 21-12.
The speed of his rise continued. By November that year he had played a World Cup final and after only being an international player for just a week over three months he had shared in the 12-6 win over England at Twickenham.
In many respects his career never looked back from that heady start. His play, as a tall leaping lock forward was always strong and authoritative, his goal-kicking from the lock forward position was often a real bonus to his Queensland and Australian teams. One time, early in his career, in a Brisbane club game, he let fly with a dropped goal attempt from half way. The ball flew high and true between the posts. The modest Eales dismissed the kick as if it were nothing. When he took over the captaincy of his country he was almost as laconic in accepting the honour. Not that Eales wasn’t proud, he was quietly delighted. He took to leadership as if to the manner born. It brought out in himself an ability to also bring quiet influence, confidence and respect from his teammates. A number of seasoned Australian writers rate him among their very best captains of all time. Those same writers say he is the best forward that country has ever produced.
Certainly as a player Eales was a true utility, playing in more than one position in the forward pack, (lock and number eight forward) yet he was also a multi-skilled performer around the field. He had such talent that somewhere on one of his journeys one of his mates called him ‘Nobody’ but it was not a reference to his quiet and shy manner. The name was a shortened version of ‘nobody’s perfect.’ The name was a backhanded compliment to his rare gifts.
John Eales played everywhere in the rugby world and, as already listed, had probably more success than any other player. By the time he reached the 1999 Rugby World Cup he was one of the most familiar faces of the world game. But retirement was looming. He had only reached the final’s series after a long and careful buildup recovering from a shoulder injury. But he played the World Cup with more than his usual authority and vigour; at one point it the final against Wales in Cardiff he demanded of the referee; Andre Watson of South Africa, that he should look closely at the tactics of the French players; ‘if you do not look at their foul play I will take my team off the field.’ Coming from Eales it was absolute that something was going on.
When the Wallabies won by the resounding margin of 35-12 John Eales took the Cup from Queens Elizabeth II and held it high. Though he played on for one more season that was the summit of his superb career.
His total of 86 test matches was then a Wallaby record for a forward; only the winger David Campese had played more. (Only Tim Horan and Jason Little were also in two World Cup winning teams; but does Eales being captain in one final just lift him a little higher?)
Who captained the British and Irish Lions on tour to New Zealand in 1977?