His rapt commentary has gripped sports fans for almost 50 years, but last night it was the man behind the microphone who was centre of attention as tributes flowed in for David Coleman, the veteran broadcaster who has died aged 87.
David Cameron called him the “voice of BBC Sport for as long as I can remember”, while former England striker and Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker lamented the loss of “a giant of sports broadcasting: brilliant, gifted, precise and concise”. Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, led the corporation’s tributes, saying he “was one of this country’s greatest and most respected broadcasters. Whether presenting, commentating or offering analysis, he set the standard for all today’s sports broadcasters.” Fellow commentator and former Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Brendan Foster hailed him as the “greatest sports broadcaster that ever lived” and sprinter Linford Christie labelled him “iconic”. Coleman, who died with his family at his bedside after a short illness, worked for the BBC from 1954 until his retirement in 2000, covering 11 Olympic Games and six football World Cup finals. He hosted Grandstand for a decade and Match of the Day for almost as long. In 1972 he was required to hold a sombre vigil for 30 hours, as he broadcast from a single fixed camera during the siege by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. Many of yesterday’s tributes focused on people’s fondness for the unique timbre of his voice, for the drama he could bring to the denouement of a race, or the solemn respect he could give to a “one-nil” during a football commentary. For the public, however, it was not only his encyclopaedic sporting knowledge and ability to thrill an audience that was endearing, but his reputation for on-air gaffes and non-sequiturs, which resulted in Private Eye starting its own “Colemanballs” column. The attention paid to such mistakes infuriated him at first, as he was someone who prided himself on his professionalism and perfectionism. Both were traits that could at times make him a hard taskmaster for his colleagues. In later years, however, he mellowed and was able to see the funny side of his notoriety, recognising that it was born from an affection that had raised him to the status of national treasure. Despite this, he always maintained that the most famous Colemanball of all – and the one that originally spawned the name – was in fact not of his making. It was the infamous exclamation explaining the brilliance of the 1976 400m and 800m Olympic gold medallist, Alberto Juantorena of Cuba: “And there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class.” The commentator responsible was actually Coleman’s BBC colleague, Ron Pickering. A selection of the best colemanballs * “This could be a repeat of what will happen in the European Games next week” * “He’s even smaller in real life than he is on the track” * “The late start is due to the time” * “He is accelerating all the time. The last lap was run in 64 seconds and the one before that in 62” * “In a moment we hope to see the pole vault over the satellite”
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