It was one of the greatest performances in distance-running history, accompanied by the worst race call I’ve ever heard. An astonishing athletic feat, sullied for spectators by car-crash commentary.
As a performance, Ruth Chepngetich’s 1:04:02 half marathon on the rain-soaked streets of Istanbul in the N Kolay Istanbul Half Marathon on Sunday, April 4, was as good as it gets—a world record by 29 seconds. Not that you’d have known it by watching the race broadcast on YouTube.
Here is the full race broadcast:
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Shortly before halfway, the commentator told us “because of the rain the races aren’t going that fast” (the women’s race very much was) and that “their latest lap time was a three-minute, seven-second, ehhh, time,” with absolutely no context on distances or which gender he was even talking about.
For most of the closing miles, as Chepngetich ran alone, he was unable to tell us who she actually was, never mind how fast she was going or that history was unfolding before our eyes. After 51 minutes, we saw a lingering shot of Kenya’s Hellen Obiri as she tried to chase down Chepngetich in the women’s race, and again the commentator had no idea who she was.
And why would he?
Well, Obiri is only the reigning world cross country and world 5,000-meter champion and, after all, she only won silver at the last Olympics.
Forty minutes after Chepngetich crossed the line, the commentator was still unaware of what the 26-year-old Kenyan had achieved, referring only to a “track record” and blaming the conditions for the lack of world records. He seemed most impressed that this was her third time winning the race rather than, you know, her becoming the fastest half marathoner in history.
As race calls go, this was as bad as it gets.
In the men’s race, Kenya’s Kibiwott Kandie broke clear of Geoffrey Kamworor after 52 minutes, and it was clear the commentator was unable to recognize either athlete. He first called Kandie his correct name, before deciding he was Felix Kimutai, before saying neither name for several minutes. He told us instead that “the mindset right now of the runners is more often than not, you know, one step at a time, one kilometer at a time. During a half marathon, you almost always hit a wall.”
This might have been understandable were Kandie not (as Chepngetich now is) the fastest half marathoner in history.
To top it off, as Kandie sprinted up the home straight to take victory, he was called “Kandie Kibiwott.” Imagine an NFL announcer saying “Brady Tom” or an NBA announcer saying “James LeBron”—that would be the start and end of their work in the sport. But in running, we continually accept sub-par announcing that lacks not just enthusiasm, energy or insight, but even basic knowledge about the sport.
The broadcast wasn’t all bad, of course. They made excellent use of the split-screen to show both races at times, which is something distance-running fans have long desired. And, if you came to learn about the history of Istanbul’s bridges, well, you were certainly in the right place. (I also learned that the Spice Bazaar the athletes passed was built with money from the Ottoman Empire in Egypt … fascinating.)
But when the commentator ran out of things to say, he read passages word-for-word from Wikipedia about the half marathon and from various articles online about the distance, including a couple from Runner’s World. He improvised as well as he could, but here’s the thing about commentating: You can’t Google your way out of a lack of knowledge—at least not when the hole that needs filling is the width of the Grand Canyon.
And yet, this happens all the time in our sport: Inaccurate or uninspired race calls by announcers hired because of their experience in other sports, guys who would struggle to name a single athlete aside from Usain Bolt, who is retired.
The best announcers—I’m thinking of Tim Hutchings, Steve Cram, Paul Swangard—live and breathe the sport day in, day out. They forge relationships with athletes, agents and coaches, research meticulously and, come race day, they’re able to not just inform us what’s happening, but how, and why.
They entertain us, enlighten us, bringing us behind the performance and teaching us about the people, unveiling the athletes’ stories as the race unfolds before our eyes.
What happened a few weeks ago in Istanbul was a new low, but we shouldn’t fully blame the announcer—he was simply trying his best in a tough situation. I’ve been there as a race broadcaster, making mistakes and watching the criticism flow through the comments section. The person more at fault was whoever put him there. On Tuesday, April 6, I reached out to the race organizer, Sports Istanbul, and they were aware of the reaction to the commentary.
“We are very happy owing to the world record and its reflections [in the] media, but we got negative comments about [the] English [language] commentator,” a spokesman wrote. “We will change the commentator [for the] next race, Istanbul Marathon, on 7 November 2021.”
But this is just the latest incident showing why we need people behind the mic who truly know the sport, and who love it. The problem with the alternative is that it works fine until it doesn’t, and then it can very quickly turn into a train wreck.
Another example: During a top-level track meet on the European circuit in 2020, the announcer (who works primarily in other sports) laughed as he said you can tell the pacers were pacers due to having “much more muscle mass” than other competitors in the women’s 1500 meters. What he said might have been true, to an extent, but to giggle about athletes’ body types showed a total lack of understanding around issues in this sport that are not as prevalent elsewhere.
So often, we hear athletes described as “stick-thin” or “well-muscled” and, while it may be accurate, commentators need to reflect more on how those listening—whether an athlete aspiring to reach that level, or the athletes themselves, if they watch the race back—might interpret that.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed an Irish middle-distance runner, Katie Kirk, who endured a long battle with an eating disorder, and she opened my eyes to how dangerous talk of physical appearance can be, no matter how unintentional it is. It made me reflect on any physical descriptors I use when commentating on races.
“We need a complete culture change where we don’t size up people’s bodies, where commentators don’t comment on the way women look, or the way men look,” she told me for the Irish Independent. “Where we don’t talk about people’s shape.”
To me, the solution to many of these issues is simple: Hire announcers who are embedded in the sport, not blow-ins who so often find themselves in front of the mic describing the history of a bridge, but knowing virtually nothing whatsoever about the athletes they’re watching.
There are many current and former athletes who have proven as adept in the commentary box as they were on roads; Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg have recently brought fascinating insight to race broadcasts, while Kara Goucher provided a fascinating level of insight on the coverage of the USATF Grand Prix in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday.
There is no shortage of announcers who know the difference between a 4:45 and 4:55 mile, and who can explain why that change of pace is so important in the overall race picture; those who can recognize a world-beating Kenyan because of their strides and their faces, and who don’t have to be told their identity through a live results page; those who know enough about this sport and its history to educate the viewer and explain to us why it matters.
Don’t get me wrong: The majority of race broadcasts are done quite well, but this race in Istanbul marked a low water mark that we, as a sport, need to never repeat again.
Because the real key to making the world care about these races, these runners, is to find an announcer who already does.
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