The Rest is Commentary
A Q&A with gymnastics commentator Olly Hogben
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In 1996, John Tesh opened the NBC broadcast of the women’s gymnastics team optionals at the Olympics by referring to the athletes as “little girls dancing for gold.” Never mind that many of these “little girls” were voting age or older. His choice of words was obviously cringeworthy but hardly anomalous; the 1996 women’s gymnastics coverage was littered with sexist, infantilizing language. In fact, a lot of the coverage of women’s gymnastics over the years has been boring at best and offensive at worst. The 1988 Olympic commentators spent a lot of time talking about the appearances and dating prospects of the female gymnasts.
Well, at least we now have Olly Hogben doing television commentary. I feel pretty confident in proclaiming that the Brit won’t ever say “little girls dancing” on air. This is, in part, why gymnastics fans have taken to him since he started commentating about the sport at the European Games in 2015. Beyond not saying disparaging and offensive things about the athletes, the former girls’ school headmaster and pro wrestling commentator has proven to be a dedicated student of the sport; his commentary is highly detailed and knowledgeable. Olly has clearly taken the time to learn the intricacies of gymnastics. Also, he has a delightfully corny sense of humor, which comes through during the TV broadcasts.
I reached out Olly and asked if he would answer a few questions about his background and approach to gymnastics commentary and he graciously agreed.
Our Q&A email exchange has been lightly edited for clarity but I kept Olly’s British spelling of words like “theatre” and “centre” so that you can more easily summon his accent in your head as you read his responses.
Dvora Meyers: Based on your bio, you started your career by commentating for pro wrestling events. How did you move from that to commentating about Olympic sports like gymnastics? What was that transition like?
Olly Hogben: I probably have one of the oddest journeys into mainstream sports broadcasting that you're likely to encounter! Back in 2011, I was a drama teacher in Oxfordshire and one of my specialisms was physical theatre and stage combat. As a child, I was a huge fan of professional wrestling (think 80s WWF and you're on the right lines), and a friend and I were watching it on TV one day and decided to make a demo tape of us doing some wrestling commentary. We sent it to a few companies and, very fortunately, got a job within 48 hours working for a small company in Essex. A total surprise as it really is an awful demo—I can't watch it now!
But my love of commentary really started when I was a child. I played association football and tennis for years but I was invariably more interested in listening to how it was commentated than watching what the athletes were doing. So, although I started as a wrestling commentator, I always had aspirations to do more than just that, and gymnastics was always in my mind as a dream. The big change happened in 2014 when I started doing two things—commentating for my local football team (Farnborough FC) and being approached to do Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling commentary for Eurosport. That led to the European Games in Baku in 2015, and at the end of that I was asked to do the Olympics in Rio. I will never forget the shock of being approached to do Rio after having done just one multi-sport event. The transition to the multi-sport world was hard at first because I have no professional training in broadcasting at all. I didn't study it at university like so many of my colleagues did and therefore had to learn all of the 'rules' on the job. However, I sometimes think that worked to my advantage because I realise now that I've developed a voice and style that is distinctly different from other people. I also had a period of two years where I was working seven days a week as a full-time assistant headmaster in a south London girls' school and doing commentary at weekends and in the evenings. When I went full-time in 2016, I was quite relieved just to get a moment to breathe!
DM: How is commentating about gymnastics similar to commentating about pro wrestling? And how is it different?
OH: Well, the biggest difference is a simple one—in professional wrestling, I knew who was going to win beforehand! In pro wrestling, winning or losing—even who is holding a title belt—is about telling a long-term story that makes the viewer feel something. Being a wrestling commentator is more like being an actor, which is why it appealed to me at first, I think. As a wrestling commentator, your job is to help a viewer suspend their disbelief; you want them to find it easy to believe what they're watching is a real contest even though deep down they know it isn't. Watching good professional wrestling is no different from watching a good film or reading a good book, and the commentator is just another character in that story. In total contrast, gymnastics is a competitive sport so my job is not to create false drama and engineer a story, but simply to tell the story that is there. For example, if a wrestler pretends to be injured for the purposes of a story, my role was to really accentuate that and make people feel the drama. When a gymnast is injured, I do the reverse; I try to calm everyone down and never overplay the situation. So there aren't many similarities between the two worlds, but there is definitely one—to tell every athlete's story. Whatever sport you're working on, the athlete is at the centre of it.
DM: As a commentator, what do you see as your primary job? Is it educating the viewers? Entertaining them?
OH: This is a great question! For me it's clear—I am here to help people enjoy the sport. The first way to do this is to only speak when you are sure that you can add something. The thing that annoys me most about my own commentary is when I know I've said something that I didn't need to say. A great example of this is a running joke that I have with other people about how gymnastics commentators (and I know I've done this!) so often say at the start of the routine, "<Name> will be hoping to get through this cleanly." Now...when exactly does a gymnast not hope to get through the routine cleanly? It's entirely redundant and yet we all say it! Secondly, a commentator must prepare thoroughly. I went into the World Championships with 25,000 words of athlete bios for around 300 athletes that I had written ahead of the competition because I really want every athlete to get their moment in the spotlight. For me, a 15-year-old debutant from San Marino is no less important than the reigning World Champion from China; they're both three-dimensional people. And the final thing is to remember that you're talking to a huge spectrum of viewers; a gymnastics TV audience ranges from Olympic gold medalists from years gone by to people who have never watched gymnastics in their life. The worst thing you can do as a commentator is just settle on the middle ground and aim for the 'average viewer’ because they don't exist and you'll just annoy everyone! What I try to do—and hopefully sometimes succeed [at]—is to talk to the hardcore fans one minute, then the total novices, then move to those who need a quick recap.
DM: Gymnastics fans have often been critical of TV commentary about the sport, especially NBC's Olympic coverage. And one of the chief complaints was that there was a mean spiritedness that pervaded the commentary at times. (I wrote a bit about that for Deadspin back in 2012.) How do you balance the need to be critical in order to explain what's happening with being positive about the athletes and their performances?
OH: Imagine that the rules for an NFL game had changed and that the winner was determined by a combination of two factors: how complex the plays were that each team had tried to attempt during the game and how infrequently their quarterback failed to complete a pass. Who's winning would be much harder to communicate to an audience and that's the problem with broadcasting gymnastics. Now, I have no issue whatsoever with how gymnastics is scored—it's not a binary thing like hockey or basketball—but it does mean that commentators can fall into traps, and one of them is to constantly list all the reasons why an athlete is losing marks. With gymnastics, you have to try extra hard to signpost what is good because virtually all of it is good. If an execution score is 9.1, why should a broadcaster spend 90% of their time talking about the loss of less than one mark? I have to talk about the deductions but I try to be proportionate. Perhaps it's easier for me—in a strange way—because I am very conscious of the fact that I cannot do gymnastics! Fundamentally, I don't believe that commentators or analysts, whether they have been an elite gymnast or not, should be talking in the first person a lot, and saying, "I think,” "In my opinion,” and "If it were me.” Ultimately, it's only down to two people—gymnast and judge—and if you're not one of those [two], you should simply try to help the viewer see it from those perspectives. I also think that you need to let an athlete leave with their dignity; this is one of my mantras. Everyone has a bad day sometimes—don't kick a person when they're down.
DM: Were you surprised by how you've been embraced by gymnastics fans? Also, aren't you also a little terrified by the gymternet? I know that I sometimes am, which is generally a good thing since it keeps me from writing dumb things.
OH: I'm shocked at how I've been embraced, to be honest! It was in Glasgow last year that people really started to react positively to my commentary and I couldn't believe it. I still can't. One of the loveliest parts of the recent World Championships for me was receiving a long thread on Twitter of gymnastics fans all over the world telling me where they were watching from and saying how much they enjoyed listening to me. I have been treated so nicely by the gymternet and am enormously grateful. As a commentator—and you know this all too well as a writer—you know that the very next sentence that you utter could be some sort of awful error! I've definitely made some daft mistakes, too; I've called skills incorrectly, occasionally misidentified a gymnast, got the numbers wrong...and I'll do it all again, I'm sure. But my hope is always that people will look beyond this stuff and recognise that I truly love this sport and really care about getting it right. And I've been treated so compassionately by fans. Just the other day, someone wrote to me very nicely because I was massacring the pronunciation of a Turkish gymnast's surname. They didn't do it at all unpleasantly though; it was part of a lovely note about how much they enjoyed my commentary. So I suppose I'm not terrified by the gymternet because for me one of the greatest things in life is to be surrounded by people who are passionate about something, and I learn so much from gymnastics fans. I don't expect everyone to like my commentary—of course I don't—but I hope that even those who don't can at least appreciate that I'm working hard and giving it my best shot.
DM: In your interview with Gymcastic, you spoke about how conscious you are of the language that you use to talk about the athletes, especially female athletes. You said that you don't speak about women differently from how you talk about men. Can you elaborate on that a bit? And what are some common mistakes that commentators make when speaking about female athletes in general, and female gymnasts in particular?
OH: Well, I'll start by saying that I think gymnastics is actually further ahead than a lot of sports in terms of its use of language. For example, we have 'women's gymnastics' and 'men's gymnastics'; football, for example, is still routinely categorised as 'football' and 'women's football,’ which is ridiculous. And look at how far the sport has come in terms of no longer writing off someone who's 19 as practically geriatric! I think that commentators of any gender, me included, have got to be careful in not reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Sport has often expected women to smile and be gracious, whilst being very tolerant of male athletes acting tempestuously. Would you ever hear a baseball commentator say, 'Oh, isn't it lovely to see him smile?' about a pitcher who's just thrown three strikes? And why shouldn't we describe a man's technique as 'graceful and elegant'? In terms of common mistakes that broadcasters make with female gymnasts, there are two big ones; the first is talking for them by using a (often male) voice to tell us what the woman is really thinking rather than discussing what they might be thinking; and the second is thinking that small equals young. Someone is not a 'girl' when they're a 20-year-old who happens to be 4'11! This sort of stuff is, I suppose, really important to me because of my teaching background but also my family background. I'm really lucky because my grandfather was a feminist way ahead of his time—a child of two orphans from London who steadfastly refused to indulge in any gender stereotyping. So being clear that you're a feminist sort of runs in our family, and I do try really hard to actively choose language that doesn't show a gender bias...and I'm really cross with myself whenever I get that wrong.
DM: If you could go back in time and commentate on any past gymnastics competition, which one would you choose and why?
OH: Ah, this is easy because I commentated it from my living room couch at the time anyway as an 11-year-old! I would go back to the 1993 World Championships in Birmingham and the women's all-around final. It was the first gymnastics [competition] that I ever watched, and it's why I fell in love with the sport. And I'd commentate it alongside Barry Davies, who is the greatest lead commentator in the history of broadcasting!
Photo courtesy of Olly Hogben.