Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 30, 1996
Different Olympic images
In South Africa, the summer Olympics are being televised for only the second time. Viewers are getting a raw, non-sugar-coated version of the games. Field hockey, rowing and cycling are in the spotlight. Commentary is occasional and refreshingly amateurish.
E-mail from Johannesburg

I've seen enough field hockey in the last week to last a lifetime.

I didn't even know men played field hockey until South Africa Broadcasting Corp. began its coverage of the Atlanta Games. But South Africa has one of the 12 men's teams contending for Olympic gold, and suddenly the players of an obscure sport have become national television stars.

It's one of the charming aspects of SABC's Olympic coverage that sets it apart from American broadcasts.

South Africans get to see the Olympics in their raw, unedited form. They get few of the pre-packaged schmaltzy features that American viewers are accustomed to watching. There is hardly any of the cut-and-run editing designed to hyperventilate viewers and keep Nintendo-crazed American youths from grabbing their remotes.

Instead, South Africans get to watch entire field-hockey games.

SABC shows events that Americans see only in tiny type in the back of the sports section. It shows target-shooting and lots of rowing and cycling. Badminton and table tennis were on the other night. I think the last time Ping-Pong was shown on American TV was when U.S. relations with China thawed during the Nixon administration.

There's a touch of amateurism to the South African broadcasts that is actually sort of refreshing. Sometimes the commentators forget the microphones are on, so you can hear them clearing their throats or telling each other to straighten up their neckties. Occasionally the producers forget to switch on the microphones, and so entire events go without any explanation.

Maybe it's better that way.

The broadcasters also say politically incorrect things that would land an American announcer in hot water. Consider announcer Trevor Quirk, who could not let the British women's field-hockey team go without noting their ``rather pretty" red skirts.

Some events have commentary, but it's Greek to me. South Africa has 11 official languages, and SABC is broadcasting the Olympics in four: English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. SABC tries to match announcers to events that might be of interest to a particular culture. There is no Zulu commentary on equestrian events, for instance.

But the juggling of languages causes some discomfort for those of us who are monolingual. Frequently SABC assigns two analysts to discuss an event: one speaking in Afrikaans and the other responding in English. It's like listening to half a telephone conversation. Announcer Peter van den Berg delivered an impassioned description of the women's beach volleyball final the other day, all in Afrikaans. Then it was back to the booth.

``Really interesting stuff from Peter there," the announcer said. We'll take his word for it.

Keep in mind that the South Africans are still in the formative stages of broadcasting the Olympics. The apartheid government banned television until 1976 in an effort to protect the country from infectious international opinions. And the rest of the world banned South Africa from the Olympics for 32 years, until apartheid collapsed.

So the Atlanta Games are only the second time the South Africans have broadcast a summer Olympiad, the first being the Barcelona Games in 1992. SABC sent about 90 people to Atlanta to do television and radio coverage. It is also under contract to assemble a daily hourlong Afro-centric highlights show that the International Olympic Committee broadcasts to the rest of Africa for free.

One event the South Africans have played down was the bombing early Saturday at the Olympic Centennial Park. Perhaps it is the reaction of a nation that has grown numb from years of political bombings, but SABC glossed it over.

``The Atlanta Games - back on the road after Friday's troublesome tragedy," the announcer said 12 hours after the blast. That was about it.

It is as though they don't want anything to detract from the luster of the Games, because the Olympics are a big story here, another measure of South Africa's re-entry into the civilized world. When swimmer Penny Heyns won South Africa's first gold medal in 44 years last week, it was the lead story for several days. The day Heyns won her second gold, the Star newspaper in Johannesburg published its morning edition with a gold masthead.

SABC, which operates three channels nationwide, is broadcasting 196 hours of Olympic coverage, about 25 hours more than NBC is serving up for Americans. Of course, you have to be an insomniac to watch it. There is a six-hour time difference with Atlanta, so SABC begins its broadcasts at around 9 p.m. It goes until dawn. It also shows the same ads over and over.

About 40 percent of the broadcasts are live - unlike NBC's ``virtually live" delayed broadcasts. Live broadcasts have advantages: South African viewers got to watch injured American gymnast Kerri Strug making her gold-medal winning vault last Tuesday at the moment the event actually happened. NBC waited more than five hours to show the drama.

There are disadvantages, too. During halftime of field-hockey match, the announcers discussed the finer points of a pretty boring game while the camera was trained at midfield, capturing a water-sprinkler going back and forth.

Much of SABC's coverage has naturally focused on South Africa's 87 athletes. But with a relatively small team, SABC is left with a lot of time to show events that don't include South Africans. The broadcasts have a much more of an international feel than what is seen in the United States.

One problem that has emerged is that the SABC announcers are unfamiliar with some of the sports they are describing, which one newspaper called ``shocking."

Conversely, sometimes SABC just lets the cameras roll and follow athletes around, an approach that puts viewers more in the position of spectators in Atlanta. After the swimming finals, for instance, a camera crew trailed some of the winners as they took a three-minute walk around the pool, absorbing the accolades from the audience. There was no commentary from SABC, just the giddy giggling of young athletes at the greatest moment of their lives.

I thought this device was a brilliant bit of cinema verite, delivering the sort of unfiltered information that attracts people to the Internet and talk radio nowadays.

I called up SABC and spoke to Christo Anderson, the international liaison for SABC Topsport. ``We're trying to catch the atmosphere that other broadcasters ignore," he said.

Then he burst my balloon. He said the lack of commentary in most cases was a ``hiccup" caused by a technical glitch or the unintentional absence of a commentator.

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