Steve Cram, commentating for the BBC (Getty Images) © Copyright

Steve Cram: from world champion to world-class commentator

BBC TV commentator Steve Cram will once again be the man behind the microphone at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. We ask the 1983 World 1500m champion what his role will entail over the course of the nine-day event.

When does your preparation work start for a World Championships?

“It starts as soon as one season ends. I’m always trying to keep track of the bigger names, which athletes are running indoors, who is injured, etc.  If you turn up in the summer and you haven’t been following what people are up to, you can get a false impression of where they are heading for the season. My specific work for Moscow started the week or two before the championships, as soon as all the final teams have been named.”

Can you describe your typical day during a championships?

“They are long days and pretty full on. I get up on a morning and, literally, the first thing I do is to check any news stories that may have happened overnight. I usually head down to breakfast with the start lists, which Mark Butler our statistician provides. I then try to get to the stadium about an hour-and-a-half before going on air, check any late withdrawals, go through the start lists and prep each race adding my notes to anything Mark already has. We might go through a couple of sound checks and then get into position. It is also very important to make sure I’ve got some refreshments to hand, as halfway through a morning I’ll get hungry.”

What do you do between sessions?

“I like to go back to the hotel to help refresh the brain and maybe go for a jog, but Moscow will be interesting because there is not a lot of time between sessions and the hotel I’m staying in is quite a distance from the track. For the first two or three days I’ll be at the stadium all day, where I’ll grab some lunch have a bit of downtime and start my prep for the afternoon session. I also might use that time to grab a coach or manager to seek clarification on something that might have happened in the morning session.”

When does your day finish?

“The hardest challenge on an evening is to get back to bed as quickly as you can. It is tempting to start chatting and I will always grab something to eat whether that is at the stadium or back at the hotel. Often some nights you won’t go to bed before midnight or 1am and then I’m often up the next day at seven.”

Do you get as nervous commentating on big events as you did competing as an athlete?

“I get less nervous, but I do get nervous for the big races, because what I do is a performance and I want to do a good job. It is more like a good, nervous anticipation. For me different events have a different feel or pace to them. I probably get more nervous for a 100m or 110m Hurdles final because a lot can happen in ten to 12 seconds. I have to be on the ball and I approach (as a commentator) the sprint races a bit like a sprinter would; very on edge, watching for the false start or who gets away quickly. That nervous anticipation is heightened because of the nature of the race. In a 10,000m race I have more time to go with the pace of the race. I’m not as excited at the beginning but then the tension builds and grows during the race.”

What qualities does a good commentator need?

“A good understanding of the sport. I don’t think you need to have been an athlete yourself and some great commentators have not been athletes themselves, but most have been immersed in the sport. You have to have a feel for what you are watching. This gives you a good background, so you are not stressing about the mechanics of the race I don’t think anyone is born a great commentator, you have to work at it and learn about it. You have to learn about the different techniques of how to commentate on a race. You have to be able to inform the viewer and deliver a sense of excitement and build to a crescendo and climax.”

What advice would you give any young up and coming commentator?

“Don’t go in with any pre-prepared words. Allow what is happening in front of you to determine how to describe it. I have facts and figures and background details in my head for pointers, but I never write down any pre-determined lines. I prefer to go with what I’m seeing.”

Do you have a World Championships commentary highlight?

“For me, it was (Usain) Bolt in Berlin. He was so good there, it made the job of a commentator a lot easier when an athlete does great things and grabbing for superlatives is a lot easier. Bolt at those championships was a personal highlight, for no other reason than he was an athlete absolutely at the top of his game. I felt I did it justice.”

What tricks do you have during a nine-day championship to keep your voice fully functioning?

“I have to be careful to pace myself through the week and I try to keep myself well hydrated. I try to be sensible and in that sense it is like being an athlete. I always keep a range of throat lozenges with me and try to keep hydrated and drink lots of water. Some people with a sore throat try to grab a hot drink, but I feel that makes it worse.”

How do you feel at the end of a nine-day World Championships?

“Tired. I don’t think you realise the concentration level needed to be live on air. When it finishes it is a bit like pulling the plug and everything drains away and you feel very tired. When I return home I usually sleep well for a couple of days and my voice needs a day or two to return to normality.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF