Tim Hutchings and Rob Walker make an excellent pair in the commentators' box, keeping the audience engaged with their amazing treasure of stories on athletes, known and little known.
Hutchings competed internationally for ten years and has been commentating for 30 years, having worked at the London Marathon and written for magazines. He also set up his own race 12 years ago in Brighton and it is the No. 2 marathon in UK.
Walker has been working in television for 20 years and specifically commentated on athletics. His debut came at the 2007 World Championship at Osaka. He jokes, “I hope to keep going after he is retired (laughs).”
Hutchings and Walker spoke to Sportstar on their love with athletics.
Q) Does being an athlete give you an advantage in the TV studio?
Walker: Tim was a brilliant athlete. I grew up watching athletes like Tim. His best is two silver medals in world cross country championships (1984 and 1989). In both cases it took an Olympic champion to beat him. If you are a former Olympian or Commonwealth medallist you obviously have a level of gravitas that someone like me does not have.
Tim: It’s not necessary to be an ex-performer to be a good commentator. Rob’s a fabulous commentator. The BBC uses him a lot. There are people fighting over getting Rob’s services. The skills you apply to athletics are transferable to other sports. It’s about timing, eloquence, world-constructed sentences. Rob’s very good at it. He has commentated on most of the IAAF world championships for the last 10-15 years.
Q) What is the most important thing for a commentator?
Rob: The most important thing for a commentator is that he or she almost lives and breathes that sport. They might not know what it feels like to run the 1500 in 3.35 but they do know what it feels like. How tired you are at the bell and the demons you battle to get in. The first time I sat in a commentator’s box at Osaka made me feel a life in a way that no other broadcasting had done to that point and hasn’t done since. If you get athletics and if you get distance running it’s the best job in the world other than being the athlete winning the gold medal on the track. Anybody who is aspiring to be a commentator the number one ingredient they need is an inbuilt, instinctive passion for the sport that they are working on. The rest can fall in place with the training.
Tim: The best part of commentating is just being there. Being at the stadium. We have to do stuff off-tube when you are in a studio and commentating on a race on the other side of the world. That happens quite a lot. But being in the stadium and commentating on live sport is a real privilege. It is also being able to embellish the pictures. There’s a lot of people who will say that good sports pictures don’t need commentary. You can see what’s bloody going on. But actually if you can embellish it, add another layer of knowledge and emotion to the pictures unfolding and if you can get occasionally people’s spines tingling and hair standing at the back of their necks then you would have done a great job. Most men love sport and 99 per cent of those men would love to be working in that sport but 99 per cent of them are not working in that sport. If you are in that one per cent working in that sport you are very, very lucky. We are very privileged. You need to keep your feet on the ground.
Q) What is the role of a commentator?
Rob: To try and help bring that drama to life. The pictures sell and tell the story in many cases. For instance, let’s say if you are a casual viewer, and you are watching the men’s 3000m steeplechase in the last week of the World Championship, you got to give reason for people to care. You would start telling a story. "Conseslus Kipruto is the defending champion. Most of the season he’s been injured. If you are about to go out please don’t. We could be watching the end of a very, very special race. Give us another two minutes. I am talking about Kipruto. Just behind the Ethiopian who has lowered the national record this year. Can he do it? Has he got enough time, has he got enough miles in his legs after the injury." It’s common sense. If you know the story behind the two main protagonists, your job is to give enough information to give someone who is not particularly interested in whether it is the Kenyan or Ethiopian winning, keep watching. In many cases they are not watching someone from their own country so you got to hook them in with a human story. And in human stories athletics is probably right at the top of the pile because you can be the poorest, you may have come from the most humble background, and you can make it. There is no sport as cheap and accessible as ours. We need to sell these people, who are working tirelessly, week after week, just for that one slice of glory for them in their country.
Tim: One of the biggest challenges we face is the distance running. A lot of the events on tracks, like middle and long distance running, are dominated by the Africans who are obviously from a totally different culture. Whose humility is very often quite extreme, they are not naturally outgoing, especially the ladies. There are all sorts of cultural barriers gradually broken down by the sport which is one of the positives of the sport but actually more often than not in situations like that where I am trying to interview East African females, be they Kenyans, Ethiopians, Ugandans, Tanzanians. They are so shy, so hard to get information out of them and one of the things I push very hard when speaking to their managers and the athletes is, look it's not enough just to be a fast runner, it's not enough to be on television running fast down on the road in the half marathon or marathon, or running fast in the track race. People want to know the humanity behind it. Rob's right you know that character is critical but very, very often with East Africans mostly women but some of the men as well it's very hard to get good information about their family life, their personalities, their likes and hates. The ladies just giggle when you ask them simple questions. They are so scared in the interviews and in front of group of journalists. Their culture creates that barrier. That's often a challenge.
Q) How do you individually prepare for it or you take it as it comes?
Rob: I think with the sprints being able to visually identify athletes helps enormously. So when you come to a World Championships final you would be able to commentate on most or half of those athletes without looking at anything in front of you. That is the difference between doing a good commentary and hopefully an excellent commentary because it means if you recognise them, you are able to look purely at the track, not even the monitor in front of you. I like to use my own vision, own view of the track possible. So it does gradually lead to that anyway because you have seen them in the first round, semifinals and probably watched them most of the season on Diamond League circuit. So the visual identification helps and it's selling again.
Tim: I think the calling of the race, usually the main contenders, are in four, five, middle lane, so you say right, (Christian) Coleman in four, (Justin) Gatlin in five, (Adam) Gemili in six and that way you can go right – four, five, six, seven – and that way it comes naturally when the gun goes brrrr. You know you are calling and you can fit in amazing number of words in those 10 seconds. You start speaking clearly with the nice rhythm and get the names right and get the crescendo right in the last two seconds they come to the line and some one dips in the line and steals the gold. There is bit of an art to that. Some people don't get it and some do. There is no second chance, you got to get it right and it's very satisfying when you get one right and equally crushed if you get it wrong.
Q) Tim is the guru (teacher) and you (Rob) are the student. Can you pick one moment from each other’s commentary?
Rob: I like listening to him in the distance races especially because I know his background in that area. He is not afraid to give athletes a little bit of a criticism where as I would be less inclined to do so. So he adds quite a lot of colour to the race partly from his background of having being an elite athlete. Another event he is brilliant at is the pole vault but he is at his best at the distance races.
Tim: Rob is obviously good at everything. He is many people's go-to commentator for athletics. He is certainly not a student, as he has been doing this for 15 years or more . He is far too established. I had people who were my mentors who I worked with in my early years. People who had a lifetime of BBC training and had set the standards of commentary in UK, certainly through the '70s and '80s and then I started working with them through the 90s. So, I was very very lucky to pick up on them. I didn't have any formal training as a commentator whereas Rob did have. He has done proper radio training. Rob's all-round ability is his strength. He is very thorough in his preparations. His preparations for Doha World Championships was amazing. He sent me a photograph of his papers laid on his office floor and there were yards and yards of paper laid out. I was like my God this man is mad but seriously there is a lot of perfection coming from the preparations. Perfection comes from perfect preparation. Rob does amazing job race after race, field events after field events because of his preparation. He is a consummate professional I would say.
Q) Any special record you remember?
Tim: (Eliud) Kipchoge’s world record (in Berlin) last year in September. Haile Gebrselasse breaking world records round the year left, right and centre. He is a lovely, lovely man. He is so normal, humble and approachable. I think that's one of the position we are both very privileged that we commented on these people. They are Gods in the distance running or athletics generally. I have seen dozens and dozens of world records. Talking about this year I would say when Daliah Mohammed set a world record in 400m hurdles in US championships and then she improved in Doha.
Rob: Two races come to my mind. One of the race is where I was not commentating, I was watching. (Haile) Gebrselassie against (Paul) Tergat in 10,000m in 2000 Sydney Olympics. One of the greatest distance races the world has ever seen. Haile had a smaller winning margin than the winner of the 100m (Maurice Greene). It was such a great story unfolding between the rivalry on either side of the rift valley. And the second one is Dalilah Muhammad at the World Championships in Doha. What really impressed me was Sydney McLaughlin is clearly going to be the next star. It was McLaughlin in lane four, Mohammad in lane six and you knew it was going to take close to a new world record to win that title and Muhammad broke her own world record to take the gold. McLaughlin ran the second-fastest time in history to take the silver and believe me Muhammad's time is coming to an end and McLaughlin is only just beginning. It was one of the great races in the World Championships.
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