Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
6 June 2016
Your website editor has been chosen to commentate on rugby's return to the Summer Olympic Programme, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. His commentaries on the sevens will be part of the host broadcaster coverage for OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Service) the official broadcast TV outlet of the IOC. This will be my tenth Summer Olympic Games. I am publishing here my personal stories and memories of the previous nine Games I have been to.
Read here my memories of Los Angeles 1984 [and click here on the front page on 'Keith Quinn's Olympic Memories 1972-2016' to read of his very personal stories from Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976]
LOS ANGELES 1984
The Los Angeles Olympic Games were my third games, but my first since 1976. Our company TVNZ, as a state-owned corporation, had followed the Muldoon Government of the time’s decision to not attend the 1980 Games in Moscow. Sadly, it was all about limply following US President Jimmy Carter’s call for an Olympic Boycott because of the war in Afghanistan.
I had actually been all set to go to Moscow, to the point where I had the air tickets sent to me and a photo ID card. It is not a bad souvenir actually. The Official ID card from the games that didn’t happen for us.
Actually the only New Zealand TV and/or radio reporter who went to cover the Moscow Olympics was Grant Nisbett who phoned back reports about the Moscow games from various news sources from London. Grant had been to the Olympics before and he is now SkyTV’s main rugby caller of All Black test matches.
But at Los Angeles in 1984 TVNZ was back bigger than ever with its Olympic coverage. A staff of 38 flew to the states. We settled in the famous city of Hollywood. We lived in the Park Sunset Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. It was just along the street from the famed Chateau Marmont Hotel from which actor John Belushi had passed away from a drug overdose two years earlier. I had been a great fan of his.
I’ve gotta tell you though that when I hark back in my memories of the Los Angeles Olympic Games my mind firstly turns back to the infamous Park Sunset Hotel. It was a horror show to be there for about four weeks. A total disaster of a place then.
Let me tell you about it – simply because it is one of my main recollections of those Games.
For a start I had headaches right through my stay there. I had complained to the staff of a strange smell in my room but never linked it to the headaches. Then on the second to last day of my stay there the man on the desk told me that the room had had a gas leak in it, which had not previously been detected. To me that was the last straw of my stay in a hotel which was, in my opinion, basically a dump.
Guests entered the lobby at street level and then the rooms, over a 100 of them, dropped away down a slope, essentially behind the entrance level. I was placed in one on the second floor below the street level. My room was alongside a narrow pathway which ran down the side of the building to car parks at the back. I noted a comforting thing when I checked into the room for the first time. There was an iron grill across the width of my window, presumably to prevent intruders coming in from the roadway. But in case of fire there was also a foot pedal which a sign told me would release the grill in case of fire and I could climb out to safety.
So far so good I thought on arrival, even though I noted there was no chain on the door to back up what looked like a flimsy lock on the access into the hallway corridor. When two of my colleagues, Brendan Telfer and Richard Long experienced a break-in during their first night of residence, we all started to have concerns about security. Slowly the horror experiences of staying in that so-called “Olympic Hotel” built up. There were regular break-ins, or doorknobs turned and pushed to jolt us out of sleep in the night. Prostitutes, (‘Hookers’ the locals called them) openly worked the hallways.
One of them was in her 50s and was a deaf-mute, which did make for some black humour from the lads in our team ( “No tell-tale stories home from her, boys! Ho ho!”). One day we were told that a porno film was being shot in one of the rooms, on another day a patron set fire behind his closed door, every night a rock band returned from its gig and played loud music and shouted till the sun came up.
And so it went on. We were trapped there because our company had pre-paid all of the rooms. We could not move.
I took to pushing a heavy tallboy wardrobe against my door every night. When I told people this I found out others in our crew were doing the same. Our gymnastics commentator, a lovely woman called Marion Duncan, even left money in a purse on top of the set of shelves she pushed against her door. “Better they reach in and take the money than take me, “she explained, sadly but wisely, one day.
It all came to a head one morning when I decided to try and clear my headache by going up to the lobby to secure a paper and have breakfast. But I quickly shut my door and stayed in my room as, in the hallway I kid you not, I came upon a man crouching low, holding a pistol. I rang the desk in a fluster and was told, “No problem sir, don’t worry, he is a cop. There is an intruder in the building!” Later we saw a man, handcuffed, being bundled into a police car and driven away.
Ah what memories I have of that hotel in LA in 1984! For me the final straw came on the day I checked out of that miserable place.
I thought, “you bastards I’ll show you.” So I stomped my foot on the fire security pedal on the floor thinking it would be my tiny protest that the hopeless staff would have to come and put the fire grill up again. But to my horror the grill did not budge. It was broken. I left the hotel, the worst I have ever experienced in 40 years of international travel, with the knowledge that if there had have been a major fire I would have fried in the dump as well.
I am pleased to tell you that in 2000 someone told me the pigsty of a place was renovated top to bottom and is now trading again. It now looks a nice place to stay. (But what, I wonder, happened to the deaf-mute hooker?)
So now what about the Los Angeles Games themselves? Well, funnily enough, they were great. And I loved it all totally. Yes I did. By 1984 I had the exalted title of TVNZ’s Southern Editor. It was a kind of semi-executive position within the sports department that I had always worked for.
In the months before departure, along with Kevin Cameron (who was the Northern editor and later one of Sky TV’s bosses in Auckland) we had had weekly meetings to map out the day-by-day and event-by-event coverage once the Olympic action started. We planned to the minute what event would be live on air and what each of the studio videotape machines would be recording. We allocated exact times for editing and we fitted in commercial breaks at times when we felt viewers would not miss any good action. We worked hard to understand the significance, strengths and weaknesses of every day’s events. We listed each of the 16 days, with a maze of criss-cross marking, on 16 large cardboard sheets and we took them from New Zealand to the Games with us.
Once competition had started Kevin and I would meet each day to see if we were on target with our pre-planning and once satisfied that we were reasonably close he would sit in a chair where he would remain for up to 18 hours directing the coverage onto the air for our viewers back home. To this day I do not know how he had the stamina to do that, especially as he appeared to live only on jars of honey-fried cashew nuts at his elbow (which no one was allowed to touch!). They were his breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Meanwhile I chose myself a comfy slot out at the swimming pool where I commentated under the LA sun with the ex-Olympic backstroke finalist (from the 1956 Games) Lincoln Hurring. We had a great time calling the dramatic races. It was especially exciting as Lincoln’s boy Gary made it to two finals. Gary was on the comeback trail after five years away from the sport. Like Lincoln had been, Gary was also a backstroker. And his Mum had been one too (she was Jean Stewart when she won bronze medal for New Zealand in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki) The whole family were backstrokers and they lived for swimming.
Gary’s best chance was the 100 metres backstroke. We believed fervently he had a great chance for a gold medal, especially after he had swum to fifth in the earlier 200 metres. On the last day of swimming he won his 100m heat impressively. In the race commentary of the final Lincoln did his best to stay conscientiously with the call. He had to balance his hopes that his son would do well but all the while stay mindful of the international significance of his work. I remember doing the race but out of the corner of eye seeing Lincoln glancing at his stopwatch at each of Gary’s turns. In the end Gary finished fourth, a disappointment.
As he climbed out of the pool he looked up to where we were sitting. His and his father’s eyes met. From a distance of 40 metres or so I sensed an immediate connection between the two. All they both could do was shrug their shoulders in unison. Gary had given his guts in the race. But on the day it was not good enough. Weeks later he won silver in the same event at the World Championships.
Of course LA is remembered as the Games of another political boycott. This time it was in retaliation for the protests started by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 against USSR invading Afghanistan. Many countries and TV networks had boycotted Moscow.
By then we were sick of political interference with the Olympic ideals but what could we do? Just hope for the future I guess.
These were the Games of track stars like Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe and Joan Benoit who had a magnificent win in the first-ever women’s marathon.
For New Zealand there was the great sight of John Walker carrying the flag in on opening day. He was not able to retain his 1500 metres title from eight years earlier. He chose instead to contest the 5000 metres. He ran three times, in heats, semis and the final, going quicker each time but only managed 8th in the final. It was his last appearance at the Olympics, though he did carry on and race at the Commonwealth Games, until 1990 in Auckland.
The LA games for New Zealand, racked up a handsome total of Gold Medals. In all eight golds were won in rowing, canoeing, equestrian and yachting. Some wag said afterwards, “we only win in events where we either sit down or go backwards.” That has stuck as a summary of New Zealand’s performances. It also pleased New Zealanders very much that our athletes won twice as many Gold’s as Australia did (our eight to their four). We liked that.
We never spoke loudly that even though the country loved the victories of Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald in the canoeing, overlooked was the fact that many of the world’s best canoeists, from Easter Europe were absent because of the boycott. Still, our guys were there so they do deserve the glory of history.
The one other significant thing I remember about those games was the spread, for the first time, because of the excellence of our coverage, of selection of events to other networks. TVNZ on-sold its signal and when it was appropriate, its English commentary to other member countries of the Asian Broadcast Union (the ABU). So we had liaison in our studios with producers and technical staff from China, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and others. They took our coverage. Little TVNZ proudly proclaimed, “we were broadcasting for two-thirds of the world’s population.” And that was essentially true.
China eventually won 15 gold medals, eight silver and nine bronzes. We enjoyed seeing their excitement first hand.
From the close presence of the Chinese production staff came one of my favourite Olympic stories. One day we asked Brendan Telfer, the excellent broadcaster of long standing who you hear on radio these days, to make a news item about the People’s Republic of China taking our selection of events. It was to air on to a massive TV audience on the Games Opening ceremony day.
The ever-resourceful Telfer took a camera into our studio and had some shots taken of Chinese production staff, as they bustled about. Then he stood in front of a large poster on the wall, on which were rows and rows of perpendicular Chinese letters. Said Telfer to the camera, “yes, behind me on the wall we are proud to show you the Olympic Games production schedule which the Chinese producers will be working from every day.”
When that story played on the air, the English-speakers among the Chinese staff cracked up with laughter. “No its not,” they chuckled, “that poster is the menu from the excellent Chinese restaurant we have found down the street!”
So the LA Games are not all bad memories just of a shabby hotel. We did have fun times in that city too, all part of the great experiences of life each Olympics have offered. After the closing ceremony Kevin Cameron collapsed for nearly 24 hours of solid sleep, He deserved it for his gold medal performance. I wonder if he has ever eaten cashew nuts since!
Me, I checked into a decent downtown hotel for a week and roomed with the newscaster Bill McCarthy. We had a shower and a bath. So we sensibly stacked the bath full of beer and settled in for some decent R and R.
Yes I recall the Los Angeles Olympics well; we worked hard it’s true, though the last week on holiday there does tend to be a bit hazy to recall!
And trust me, though our hotel’s friendly deaf-mute prostitute winked at every man in our TVNZ team every day, I am sure no one ever availed themselves of her ample services!
On the last game of their UK tour in Cardiff, Wales beat NZ by 3-0. Ted Morgan scored a try for the home team which the All Blacks disputed forever more.
The famous Scottish rugby commentator, a man who set standards in the art of television commentary which, in the end, gained him worldwide acclaim.
Raised in the Scottish border town of Hawick, where he was a teacher all his working life, young McLaren was a good enough player to earn himself a Scottish trial in the years immediately after his service in World War II. However illness struck him down and during a lengthy stay in hospital he began broadcasting over the hospital radio system.
On his discharge and unable to play anymore he took to rugby commentary. From his beloved Mansfield Park in Hawick he started on a career at the microphone that was to last more than 50 years. His first international call was on radio for a Scottish Districts game v South Africa while during the 1951-52 tour.
His reputation grew quickly and by 1953-54 he was commentating Scottish test matches from Murrayfield. He recalls how that same winter the BBC sent him to Cardiff to observe the great New Zealand radio man Winston McCarthy in action. Bill tells the story of being amazed at how excited McCarthy got during a game. ‘At one stage he nearly fell forward out of the commentary box. I had to hold his coat to keep him in the box!’
The big change for McLaren came in 1959 when, though continuing to be a shcoolmaster, he changed to working part-time for BBC television. For the first time TV commentary of rugby was turned into the unique form it is today. No more endless verbiage as required in radio description, instead an attention came to identification of players by face and number; there was explanations given of refereeing decisions; plus identification of the placement of the game on the field. And most uniquely to McLaren, entertaining background and statistical information about the personalities in the game. The man himself filled large sheets of background notes on every player taking part in every fixture he worked on. The ‘sheets’ became sought after souvenirs and sometimes were auctioned for charity at rugby dinners.
McLaren lived by his attention to preparation; he often told budding broadcasters ‘the secret of good broadcasting is never to neglect your homework.’
He did all his work to perfection and became a huge personality in the game. It was all done with a gentle Scottish accent and cheerful attitude to life which was admired with affection all over the world. His influence over all things was perhaps summed up by one Scottish player, lamenting a narrow loss one time in the Five Nations Championship. Said the player, ‘aye, we’d have played much better if Bill McLaren had been commentatin’.’
Bill continued at the microphone until he was close to 80 years of age. He retired from BBC TV in 2002 after exactly 50 years of international broadcasting. The reaction to his departure was amazing, with much media coverage in press, radio and TV and, of course from his many fans around the world who had learned much more about rugby because of his lifetime’s commitment to it.
What was different about the British Columbian winger Denny Veitch who played against the British and Irish Lions in Vancouver in 1966?