Quite appalling coverage of one of SA’s finest sporting events

2014-06-07 00:00

THE Comrades Marathon went about as well as it could have from a South African perspective. Yes, there was an international winner in the women’s race, but that was more than countered by a 1-2-3 SA finish in the men’s. The story of the day, though, was Zola Budd’s seventh place.

At 48, the darling of South African middle and long distance running rolled back the years to shock those who had presumed that her participation was more to do with awareness and charity than it was competitiveness.

But that wasn’t the most shocking thing on the day. That title belonged to the SABC and their quite appalling coverage of what is one of the country’s finest sporting events on the annual calendar.

If , like many, you are not familiar with the top runners — except for those Russian twins who come back every year — then you’d appreciate some help from the television coverage in explaining exactly what is happening during the race. When watching a runner occupy my screen, I would like to be told at some point exactly who that runner is. I would also, at some point, like to know where they are from, how many races they have completed and how they fared at last year’s marathon. And, most importantly, I would like to know what position they are in and how far ahead or behind they are from their immediate competitors.

I am almost certain that at past marathons the coverage catered for at least some of these desires. Memories of graphs and split times and positions remain clear. But last Sunday, a strap reading “Comrades 2014” that ran along the bottom of the screen was all the information we were given for large parts of the race. Thank you, SABC, for your firm grasp of the obvious.

And then, just as all of us in the newsroom believed that we were witnessing a new low in sports broadcasting, a car accident took place on the M13 on live television. The broadcast had taken a wee nap through the help of a stationary shot capturing runners making their way up the hill, and the car crashing into the barriers as well as the exit of the passengers was all captured on camera.

I’m not sure where the producer was at that stage, but surely if he was around then one of two decisions would have been taken. The first, and possibly the most logical decision, would have been to cut immediately to another shot. Any other shot. There are cameras all over the route. Fortunately everybody in the car was okay, but nobody could have known that straight away, and the last thing that South Africans would have wanted to see on their television screens on a Sunday morning was the gory aftermath of a ghastly car accident.

The second option would have been to at least acknowledge, through the commentator, that the accident had happened. Instead, the commentary team waffled on about the race while the car accident unfolded in front of our eyes without a word uttered on the matter. It was close to a minute before somebody realised what was happening and decided to cut away.

In an attempt to save face, the SABC panel turned into road safety experts as they dissected the unfortunate incident later in the broadcast. But by that stage the country had already heard about the crash. It may be a bit far-fetched, but it seems like the country knew what had happened a minute before anybody at the SABC did.

The accident was just the tip of the iceberg. Such events can’t be planned for and perhaps we should allow the SABC some leeway on that one. But the rest of it can’t be excused. Comrades happens but once a year. There is ample time to prepare for it, for all involved.

And if the runners, organisers and supporters give the race the respect it deserves by arriving prepared on Sunday morning, then the station responsible for delivering the product to the entire nation should do the same. Instead, what we saw on Sunday was an amateurish product that looked that it was slapped together the night before.

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