Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
16 July 2016
More and more in the last weeks before I flew to Beijing for my eighth Summer Olympic Games, in 2008, I was asked two questions. The first one was, ‘are you looking forward to going to that place, Keith?’ The second one was, ‘how many ‘golds’ will we Kiwis win?”
As I look back now, even as ‘modern’ as 2008 was, many people in New Zealand still seemed to have misgivings about travelling to China. For some people the place was still an eastern mystery.
But not for me. I had had the advantage of going to Shanghai (twice) and Beijing (once) – all for International Rugby Board sevens tournaments. I loved the place.
Before leaving Wellington I kept hearing on the radio some Kiwi callers who were predicting our Olympic team would win a massive total of gold medals. ‘About three or four in the rowing, three in the cycling, plenty more in the yachting and the equestrian, and there’s Valerie Vili in the shot put of course.’
Does that not make about a dozen gold medals for us?
People seemed to forget that it had taken all our Olympics put together over the previous 24 years (back to 1984) to gather our most recent 12 Gold Medals.
Still for me, there was no doubt about it, I was as excited in 2008 as I had been in 1972 when I had donned my first purple TVNZ blazer and cream trousers (with green and purple shoes!) And proudly trotted off, aged 26 to Munich in Germany. Now I was 62 and it was ‘bring it on Beijing!’
Just to let you know how the 2008 Olympic trip differed for a broadcaster from my first trip in 1972. Back then I had stuffed a full medium-sized suitcase of books to take. It weighed a bloody ton! I had to wrench an excess baggage voucher from sleepy old TVNZ! To get one of those had always been a nightmare to obtain from our very tight-arse accounts department.
The suitcase contained the records of all past Games events, plus magazine articles and newspaper clippings, all stuffed into in files and folders. Heavy man!
By contrast in 2008 the digital age had arrived. For the first time all of the research I had was transferred down to the brand new and wonderful invention, ‘a memory stick’ for a laptop computer. The young people of 2008 just could not believe my stories of 36 years earlier.
There were other vast changes too. In 2008 there were 205 countries down for entry. By contrast in Munich in 1972 there were only 121 nations present with only 15% of the competitors being women. By Beijing there were 45% female taking part.
On touching down in the Chinese capital the words of an old George Gershwin song came back to me. Peering at my first view of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium it was not sitting sharply as I had seen it so often in the pre-Games photographs but instead half-hidden in the grimy Beijing murk. The wonderful stadium was a shadowy figure to the evils of the potent mix of polluted air and dirty mist.
So from me came a sad mumbled rendering of ‘A Foggy Day in Beijing Town,’ a mangled version of Gershwin’s dear old song about London.
Our TVNZ team was checked into the Hubei Hotel, a very nice one about an hour down the Olympic traffic lanes to the Main Media Centre. On each level of the hotel there were two, sometimes three young students acting as security. Basically they were looker-afterers for our needs. But they were serious. We soon found out that they would place a grain of rice on the door handles of each of our rooms to signal whether we were in or out. The grain would topple to the floor if we touched the door handle to leave our room. And vice versa if we’d come home I guess. Still, they were nice kids.
Here’s another early curious thing that jumps to mind from the hotel. It was slightly funny to observe but showed the impeccable character the Chinese taught us about how they live.
Early on I had a few problems with the safe in my room. It was situated at the base of a wardrobe in the corner. But the door wasn’t closing to the commands I was tapping onto the keyboard on its door frontage. And I couldn’t read the Chinese symbols of the instructions.
So I called two of the young teenage kids who are looking out for us 24/7 on every floor. As though it was national crisis they hurried to my room to assist.
The two kids (one male and one female, aged maybe 19 or 20) squatted down and tapped away until finally they looked up at me and said slowly, ‘Sir, we have fixed it. You can tap in your private number now.’
Being an old trusting kiwi joker I said to Merle, the young female, ‘look Merle, why don’t I just tell you my code and you can tap it in for me.’
The kids both looked aghast. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘we cannot do that. You must put your code in yourself.’
That of course is fair enough, so I squatted down with them in the narrow space. I leaned forward with my index finger extended to tap in my regular code. As I went to do that it was like the gun had just gone for the Olympic 100 metres final. The two lept to their feet and stood at attention facing away from where I was left huddling. I was startled by their quick movement.
But dammit, at my first attempt I didn’t put the ‘*’ symbol first, as per their instructions. My fat fingers didn’t do the job. Therefore, down we three huddled down again. More instructions with halting English, with much nodding and animated pointing, followed.
Then old dummo here got set to once again try and enter in his secret code. Again as my finger extended the two kids leapt to their feet and stood rigidly at attention facing away from me, looking instead at a blank wall, not daring to risk peeking down and seeing my secret numbers being entered. They were DETERMINED my private code should indeed be confidential!
I only mention that as an incident as if from yesterday. A snapshot of behaviour I suppose. Good on them for being so honest and disciplined.
Once again the Olympic Opening Ceremony commentary was assigned to John McBeth and me to broadcast. As I recall it was as a tough a commentary task as John McBeth and I agreed later, we could ever remember. At the end of it we both vowed ‘stuff it; someone else can do it next time.
Let me explain; McBeth and I had known for some time that we would be doing the commentary on the most auspicious Olympic day. We were proud to have been picked and looked forward to doing it to the best of our abilities.
For my part back home in New Zealand I had a search engine send to my computer each day, for a couple of months, all the news in English about those countries whose teams, well – spoke English!
The best and most pertinent facts from those sites I then cut and pasted appropriately into their team slots and built up files. When we arrived in Beijing it was matter of trawling all information together with all the teams arriving, all speaking their own languages.
But with regard to the Chinese cultural sections of the ceremony which we knew would be a major part of the show we could not do much more than skirt around the subject and do nothing too exact. That was because, and you yourselves would have seen this in Olympic or Commonwealth Games ceremonies, many parts of the gaudy show are kept secret from the world. Some parts were not released for us to consider for interpretation in commentary until the actual ceremony had started. That was the same for all countries’ TV services.
So there were complaints about the coverage from home; and they were reported on the New Zealand Herald website. The main thrust was that ‘the commentators did not appear to know much about Chinese history.’
The answer to that is, in a wide sense, yes we didn’t know till the last moment what was to exactly come. To that end we had employed the highly talented Sophie Zheng, an ex-Beijinger now involved in TV work in Wellington, to cover off the cultural aspects.
So when Sophie saw the culture of her homeland come into the ceremony John and I tended quite rightly to lean back a bit in the box and let her have her say. It was her time and I think she did it well.
When the sporting aspects of the 204 teams marching in came we came in again with John and I launching into action again. At the end, during the ceremonial aspects of the Olympic dignity, all three of us gave it heaps as best we could to help take the show and the TV programme to its appropriate climax...
At the end of the four and a half hour broadcast we three all sat there exhausted. We must have made quite a sight. It had been hellishly hot and steamy. This was no time for John and I to look like Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. We were soaked through and knackered (though of course the lovely Sophie looked fine to my eye)
Our final scripts, each up to 160 pages of A4 paper long and in exact order when we started, were scattered on the floor at our feet, as there was nowhere else to put them when their use had finished. The mess was horrendous!
But here’s the upshot of that day. We had worked our bums off, and had done the big job OK we thought. But staggering into the nearby Olympic Broadcasting Studio afterwards and seeing a few empty beer bottles on the tables there (quite rightly, the studio staff had relaxed a bit during the 4 hour telecast) it did irk me quite a bit when the Games producer Murray Needham spotted me and called out, ‘your show went 18 minutes over time!’
I could have throttled the wee man! (Which is another way of saying ‘the little bastard!’) And to add to that, 16 days later Quinn, McBeth and Sophie were all replaced for commentary on the closing ceremony. That commentary was suddenly one to be done by the privileged people of the newsroom; Peter Williams and Simon Dallow.
Peter Williams I could understand – but if I wasn’t better than Dallow in commentating an Olympic closing then I’d eat my Olympic hat!
And so the day after the opening of the Games for everyone of the 120 people on our broadcast crew it was ‘heads down and backside up.’
In our crew we had New Zealanders or course, but also Americans, Aussies, Poms, people from various Asian countries and of course Chinese, both local and New Zealand-based. The planning has been put together by a core group in Auckland, working together for over a year.
Again to give you some idea; our studio opened with staff in place at 5.30 a.m. The studio was never locked up. After the TVNZ people wearily headed homewards some 16 hours later,(with a 1-hour bus ride ahead of them) each person having worked about a ten-hour day, the South African TV editors jumped on the machines and pumped out their own highlights show until about 3am. A visit from the cleaners then took place and at 5.30 a new batch of committed kiwis comes off the bus from the Hubei Hotel and another day of Olympic excitement started up.
These Olympics were the first to be transmitted back to New Zealand via the new High Definition quality pictures. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen it myself I never would have believed so much new clarity of vision would be possible. Each day I found myself passing one of our studio screens, pausing and gasping at what was being achieved.
A contrast was to take me back to my first trip to the Games 36 years earlier in Munich when I have a vivid recollection of seeing a colour video shot of the main stadium there, for the very first time.
All of this was such a long way, though no less exciting, from the flicky, juddering image of Jack Lovelock running for our country in black-and-white film to win his 1500 metre race in Berlin in 1936. World we have similar success in Beijing?
In the first days of the Beijing Games my own favourite memory when I think back now was seeing the men and women’s cycling events. I didn’t commentate them, I just watched them unfold. With my mouth agape.
Each contest began in Tiananmen Square and then raced out and around and through various stages of the Great Wall of China.
Now come on! Who of us in our wildest breadth of imagination would have ever thought the outside world of only a few years back would have ever been invited in behind the previously impenetrable bamboo curtain to see such a sight? I felt privileged once again to be part of the team here to see that sort of wonderful Olympic story unfold.
For my own part there was one significant personal Olympic broadcasting milestone I’d like to tell you about.
This came when I was assigned to be the Field Events caller for Athletics events. The track commentaries were done by Brendan Telfer.
It had always slightly rankled with me that in 36 years I had only ever called one victorious moment for a Kiwi Olympic gold medal win. That had come in 1976 when John Walker had held off the challengers down the home stretch to do what Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell had earlier done, which was to win the Olympic 1500 metres final.
I have always said that after the Walker win all those years ago I personally loved it when dozens of other broadcasters and reporters from around the world congratulated me in Montreal for the New Zealand victory. They thumped my back and shook my hands warmly – and I loved the attention. And I yearned for a similar feeling at every Olympics I attended after that.
Alas, it never happened again.
Actually rankled eventually turned to a broadcaster’s rage, you might say. Other commentator mates like Peter Montgomery (for yachting), Ian Woodley (rowing and canoeing) and Telfer himself (hockey, track and triathlon) a number of times had called out their best commentary lines as New Zealanders crossed the finishing lines in first place.
But never me (sob!)
But then came Beijing in 2008 and once again I was back in ‘the winner’s circle.’
However it turned out to be definitely not one of my best-ever efforts at the microphone. Read on ....
In the women’s shot put Valerie Vili of New Zealand was the favourite to win and naturally I was hoping that would be so. But there was a snag put in front of my broadcast of her event which was not foreseen. Instead of being in the actual stadium commentary box, the one I had been in when McBeth and I and Sophie had sweated through the Opening Ceremony, for the field events I was back across town in an ‘off-tube’ studio.
This was because field events were considered to have a slightly lesser status than track running (somebody had decreed that). Therefore I commentated the women’s shot put from viewing the action off a medium-sized TV screen in a cramped, darkened room. When that style of commentary is foist upon a broadcaster, being on his own and far from the stadium atmosphere he or she has to ‘act’ with the rise and fall of the competition.
Added to that was the difficulty of not clearly being able to see on the monitor the on-field markings of the shot put’s landing area. Each metre is marked off with a tape which curves across the grassy surface. If you are watching inside the stadium you can instantly see where a throw lands in relation to the numbered distance marker at the side.
When Valerie stepped up for her first round throw she was obviously ready to go big time. Alas the TV coverage was not. Other throwers had gone before her and were around the 19-metre mark (the early leader was set at 19.30metres) but then Valerie went into the circle. She flashed across the enclosure and with a mighty grunt unleashed the throw of her life. The ball soared sway out to 20.56, a distance Valerie had clearly not expected (it was an all-time personal best for her) and the cameras were not ready either.
Neither was your humble commentator, squinting at a TV screen miles away and uncertain in which arc the putt had landed.
With uncertainty, I thought it was only in the 19-metre area so the throw was matched with a ‘19-metre’ voice – when the voice should have been doing commentary cart-wheels for what was clearly going to be a gold medal throw. (Indeed it was; no one else in the field came close; Valerie’s best three throws would have won her all three medals!)
But that meant I was so disappointed with the call. And the thing is; in a live telecast once you put your voice on the video you cannot reasonably ask for it to be re-recorded for a ‘second-take.’ It does not work that way. So I have to live with a modest effort of Valerie Vili’s (later Valerie Adams) gold medal throw. Damn!
Still, Beijing was great overall. A marvellous experience, just like all of the other Games we had been too. There was a gap of a fortnight between the Summer Games and Paralympics so a reduced TVNZ crew was hired for the second job. In the gap some crew went home for what John and I called ‘lawn-mowing leave’ or ‘baby-making’ leave. We never heard whether any of the latter had results!
As for those two questions I had so often heard before I flew to the great city; New Zealand actually picked up, not 12, but only three gold medals; Valerie Vili, Tom Ashley (sailboard) and the ‘Golden Girls’ or ‘Turbo Twins’ Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell (rowing). The Games of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps were a massive success.
In the gap before the Paralympics started it was the chance to see Beijing in all its glory. Sure, there had been some murky days but generally it was a time to explore in glorious hot sunny weather, another once in a lifetime Olympic chance, really.
Australia played a superb game in the RWCup semi-final to beat Gary Whetton's NZ team by 16-6 in Dublin.
A vital part of the rugby game in New Zealand and Australia, but not always used in other parts of the rugby world. It used to be that the job of retrieving the ball for players in a game once the ball had crossed the touchline was a solely masculine prerogative. This is not now the case. Often girls do the job equally as well.
The ball boy’s or ball girl’s role is to field balls quickly when they cross the sidelines so as to get the game restarted without delay. It is a duty much vied for by young rugby people who relish the opportunity to take part in a big occasion, and to watch their heroes close up.
From 1987 to 2011 inclusive; How many men have refereed the seven Rugby World Cup finals?