'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
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
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 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
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
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
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
One problem that has emerged is that the SABC announcers are unfamiliar
with some of the sports they are describing, which one newspaper called
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.
Sometimes the greatest discoveries are made by mistake.