A broadcasting era in athletics is coming to an end at the IAAF World Championships in London
But for an overly officious team manager, Brendan Foster would have made his broadcasting debut at one of the most seminal moments in British athletics history.
Having competed in the 10,000m at the 1980 Olympics, he was approached by the BBC following the race to sit alongside David Coleman and provide analysis of the men’s 1500m final a few days later.
Having happily agreed to the request, and eagerly anticipating the role he might play in observing what became a legendary tussle between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, he approached the British team management to confirm he was ok to stay on in Russia rather than come back immediately, as was originally planned.
“They didn’t have pundits in those days – you didn’t have lots of ex sportsmen doing TV,” says Foster as he takes up the story.
“The BBC head of sport, Alan Hart, had come to me and said ‘would you join us in the commentary box for the big event – Coe v Ovett?’. I said: ‘That would be fantastic but what would I do?’. His answer was: ‘Sit next to David Coleman, he’ll commentate on the race and you’ll give us your views’.
“He told me to go and see the British Olympic Association about it, so I did.
“They said it would be wonderful but the British team manager said to me: ‘My responsibility is to get you back to London tomorrow and the race isn’t on until Saturday’.
“I told him ‘but the BBC have said that if I just go to their hotel that they will pick up the tab and get me home from Moscow’. But the manager said to me: ‘No, no, no… my responsibility to get you back to London and when you get back there you’re discharged’.”
There was to be no budging.
“My first commentary should have been the Olympic 1500m final between Coe and Ovett but instead I ended up watching it on telly,” adds Foster. “I think it probably worked out better because it was one of David’s great commentaries.”
“My first commentary should have been the Olympic 1500m final between Coe and Ovett but instead I ended up watching it on telly”
It wouldn’t be too long, however, until Foster began to work with a man who started out as an acquaintance but became a great friend – he and Coleman first operating in tandem as they described the action at a cross country in Gateshead in the early winter of 1980.
There are very few big moments in the sport to have happened since which have not been soundtracked by Foster’s distinctive North East tones.
He has commentated on nine Olympics, every Commonwealth Games since 1982 and every IAAF World Championships since their inception in 1983. However this year’s edition – in London – is his last lap behind the microphone as broadcasting retirement from the BBC beckons.
“The first event I did with David was in November 1980,” says Foster, a European champion over 5,000m as well as a Commonwealth champion and Olympic bronze medallist over 10,000m. “The night before the event, I met him for a drink and at around 8pm he said to me ‘right, I’m off’. I said to him: ‘What do you mean? I thought we were going to have dinner’.
“He said: ‘I’m going to get room service and study the runners’.
“I thought: ‘Bloody hell, David Coleman is swotting up the night before a race and he’s the doyen of commentary?’ That’s when I thought I’d better do something similar. I just thought you turned up!
“He was the legend of broadcasting. He commentated on the Olympics, the World Cup football, he did Sportsnight, he did Grandstand. And one of his claims to fame was that when the Beatles flew back from their all-conquering tour of America, the landing at Heathrow coincided with Grandstand being on the air so they took the Grandstand studio to Heathrow and brought The Beatles in to have a chat with David live on air.
“When they walked into the room George Harrison said to Paul McCartney ‘blimey, we must have made it – David Coleman wants to talk to us!’”
Foster did his homework, learned his new trade and is one of the few broadcasters remaining whose voice is intrinsically linked with the sport in which they work, almost as if becoming part of the fabric.
When Coleman retired, Foster was joined in the commentary box by Steve Cram and they have formed the fulcrum of an event in London which has helped to inspire the general public in much the same the way as the atmosphere created by London 2012. As founder of the Great North Run, Foster is no stranger to a line of work which involves the aim of getting more people out there and being active.
“If I hadn’t been a good runner, I would have been a bad runner – but I would still have been a runner”
“When you’re a runner and you came through the era I came through – people used to laugh at you when you were out running because it wasn’t the thing to do,” he says. “They’d shout at you and not many people were out running – if ever you were out in your car and you saw another runner then chances are you’d know them. There weren’t that many of us about.
“So you become like an evangelist – you persuade people to come for a run with you, or you persuade them to enter an event, or to come along to the club.
“It was a very minority activity but you encourage others to run and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. I believe running is good for you and that it should be encouraged.
“If I hadn’t been a good runner, I would have been a bad runner – but I would still have been a runner. I would have been watching it on the telly or running in fun runs.”
When it comes to the elite end of the sport, it has undoubtedly hurt to see athletics on the wrong end of a seemingly endless stream of body blows in recent times.
Speaking with AW ahead of the athletics festival in the UK capital, however, Foster remained upbeat – largely due to the presence of Coe at the head of the IAAF.
“I’m in an optimistic mood because my room-mate from 1978, who shares exactly the same values I do about sport and about athletics, is the president of the IAAF now,” he adds. “And I know his intention would be the same as mine – which is to put the sport in a position where it didn’t have the shadow of doping cast over it.
“I think athletics is the most diligent of sports in terms of how it reacts to people cheating. I am optimistic of the future largely because of Seb and his approach.
“In sport and in life, you need a little bit of luck. At the moment, the sport is going through a bit of a trough and thank god Seb is trying to lift it out of that trough this year at the scene of his biggest triumph – the Olympic Stadium.”
It was at that venue five years ago when Foster conducted one of his favourite broadcasts as Farah unforgettably achieved the first of his Olympic doubles. Another moment of golden glory has rounded things off nicely.
“I’d rather go at a time when it’s going to be on a high,” says Foster. “Mo has agreed that we’ll step off the stage together. Hopefully he steps off with a gold medal and I step off with a…pint of lager!”
With that, Foster departs with a distinctive chuckle. Now London 2017 has given him even more stories to tell.
» A version of this interview was first published in the July 27 edition of AW magazine