The legendary sports commentator, David Coleman, has died peacefully today surrounded by his family. He was 87. David Coleman, in his long career, became renowned as “The Voice” of British sport. He was known and loved for his gaffes and nonsequiturs, as much as for the zeal, enthusiasm and knowledge he brought to his job. His love of sport was hugely infectious. He is said to have set the standard for all broadcast journalists who followed in his tracks to cover live sporting events. His career spanned the Rome Olympics in 1960 to the Sydney Games in 2000 and six football World Cups. He was the presenter on the very early TV programs Grandstand and Sportsnight, back in the day when there were only three channels, and he hosted the quiz show A Question of Sport for 20 years. These were all breakthrough and historical productions, bringing spectator sport straight into people’s living rooms for the very first time.
Grandstand was first aired in 1958 and collated all of that Saturday’s sporting action across the UK. It was a must-see show for all sports fans of all persuasions. Coleman had encyclopaedic knowledge over many games and disciplines, but athletics was his enduring passion. He had been a runner himself as a youth. His distinctive voice was the background to such triumphs as Linford Christie’s victories at Barcelona and Ann Packer’s win in the 800m at Tokyo, among countless others.
That very distinction made him ready material for the satirists, and he became a fixture as a Spitting Image puppet. It was Private Eye magazine who gave him his own column, Colemanballs, in an attempt to keep up with his stream of joyously nonsensical remarks. “He just can’t believe what’s not happening to him” was a classic. As was, “That’s the fastest time ever run – but it’s not as fast as the world record.”
No-one begrudged David Coleman his slips and slides into exuberant exclamation, as it was so clear they were born from sheer immersion and involvement in what he was reporting. His child-like thrill could also be counterpointed by extreme gravitas, as he proved at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when he switched roles to news reporter for many hours as the shootings at the Israeli athletes occurred in the Olympic village.
Nevertheless, he will always be celebrated for his Colemanballs; they are so wonderfully funny, they do deserve to be affectionately reviewed. “We estimate, and this isn’t an estimation, that Greta Waitz is 80 seconds behind.” Or, “Here are some names to look forward to, perhaps in the future.”
How about: “He is accelerating all the time. The last lap was run in 64 seconds and the one before in 62.”
Then there’s: “He’s 31 this year. Last year he was 30.”
And: “One of the great unknown champions, because very little is known about him.”
Not forgetting: ”He’s even smaller in real life than he is on the track.”
John Motson, another famed UK footballing commentator, said today that Coleman was, “a terrific human being” and he spoke with awed affection of his versatility. His catch phrase “One Nil” was testament to his brevity with words with which he could make the hairs on the back of the neck tingle with anticipation. That presenters can talk with accuracy and at breakneck speeds is said to be all down to Coleman’s legacy. He was the pioneer and he paved the way, and that he did so across so many sports is even more incredible.
Brendan Foster, Olympic bronze medalist for the 10,000 meters said Coleman was “the greatest sports commentator that ever lived.” He said it had been a privilege to have known him. Tributes continue to pour in.
Sport has grown into a multi-million mega-business and has changed radically in the decades since David Coleman first broadcast. Nevertheless, Colemanballs, and Coleman, will continue to have a place in sporting history alongside the Golden Balls and the gilded salaries of today’s players.
By Kate Henderson