Jerry Kelly, RTE Sports Commentator for Gymnastics at London Olympics 2012
Interview: Jerry Kelly
Position: Sports Commentator for Gymnastics at London Olympics on RTE
How did you become a sports commentator and get involved in Gymnastics?
After I finished my studies in UCD, Strawberry Hill in London and The University of Southern California (where I did a Masters in Physical Education), I came back to Ireland to work in sports and leisure management. During this time I also presented a number of programmes for RTE TV and Radio on sports, leisure and lifestyle. In 1988 I was asked to go to the Seoul Olympics to commentate on Gymnastics. As I didn’t have a background in Gymnastics, this involved months of research on the sport, the athletes and developing an understanding of the various routines that the gymnasts perform.
As a commentator what sort of interaction can you have with the athletes?
As a commentator you tend not to spend too much time interacting with the athletes because the truth is you are just too busy. I spoke to Kieran Behan (only the second gymnast ever from Ireland to qualify for an Olympics) both before and after his competition. Unfortunately for Kieran he did not execute his difficult floor routine to the level he is capable of and consequently did not advance to the floor final to put himself in with a chance of a medal. As many people will be aware Kieran went through numerous trials and tribulations to make it to the games so it was a shame that he did not display his undoubted talent. However in conversation with him afterwards he was already looking forward to the future.
How do you recognise the Gymnasts so quickly when different people are on the floor at the same time?
In the months leading up to the games I spent a considerable amount of time preparing my database on every athlete. I built a profile on the athlete, their routines, personal information, their results to date and their style. There are lots of video clips on the net which help you, so when it comes to the games you are familiar with many of gymnasts. I also attended the men’s and women’s European championships as part of my research. If I don’t recognise a gymnast immediately I can check out the scoreboard beside the piece of apparatus where the gymnast is working.
How do you remain objective? Do you start to favour an athlete?
In a sense you don’t have time to favour an athlete as there is so much going on. There are six pieces of apparatus for the males and four pieces of apparatus for females so there is just too much going on. However you look forward to seeing if the top gymnasts can hit their routines. There is always some drama as the more difficult the routine the more likely it is to lead to errors.
How do you decide what the listener wants to hear?
A good commentator is like a good referee – you are there to add to the story and not become the story. Gymnastics provides wonderful pictures which tell their own story. I give people information to back up the pictures – the state of the competing, what the gymnast is doing, their background, etc.
Is there a certain style of language and terminology you have to use when commentating to suit everyone listening?
You try to find a balance between the gymnastics language and a language that suits people who might not know too much about the sport. In gymnastics many of the skills performed are named after the gymnast who first performed the skill in international competition. Thus you hear the commentator use such names as ‘Yurchenko, Tsukahara and Tkachev’. I try not to use much gymnastics terminology but sometimes it is necessary as it is the quickest way to describe what the gymnast is doing.
How do you coordinate your comments with a colleague?
My colleague at the games is Colm Murray who is a Gymnastics judge. My role is to commentate on the event – provide background information on the athletes, such as their routines, their form going into the Games and some personal information. My colleague Colm provides the expert technical analysis on the routine performed and why they received the score that they received.
When commentating by yourself can you ever find yourself running out of things to say?
I have never found myself running out of things to say. In gymnastics there is always so much going on at the same time. The challenge is to maintain your focus and concentration of the gymnast whose exercise is being shown on the Tv and not get distracted by other routines.
At this stage you have commentated on a number of Olympics in Gymnastics, do you feel the standard is getting higher and if so how?
This was my 7th Olympic games and the standard has improved significantly since my first games in Seoul 1988. The gymnasts are constantly pushing out the degree of difficulty, trying new combinations to bring added value to their score. In gymnastics the results for the routine are based on two scores, the difficulty of the routine performed and the execution.
How do you feel this Olympics compared to previous Games? The standard, the atmosphere and all round organisation of the Games?
This Olympics was excellent in every capacity and in every detail. The energy and excitement around London was incredible. The North Greenwich Arena where the gymnastics took place was a wonderful place for this competition. Within the venue there was a very partisan atmosphere. Of course the local crowd would get behind their own gymnasts, which was the case in previous Olympics, but there was a great reception for every athlete no matter where they were from. The British people love their sport and this really came across. Kieran Behan got a great reception. Many would have been familiar with his story and really got behind him. The BBC commentators who were sitting in front of me were willing him on.
What do you believe makes the Olympics so special for a commentator?
You feel like a child – spoilt for choice in this amazing bubble for three weeks. In a sense your real world stops, you become completely engaged in the momentum of the games. The world’s best athletes are there and the eyes of millions from almost every nation in the world are on London. When you add in the astonishing number of media, photographers, volunteers, dignitaries etc, you are swept up in Olympic mania. London was taken over for the games – everything was about the Olympics.
As a commentator you are treated so well. I felt extremely privileged to be doing something that I love to do. Your accreditation allows you access to any of the other stadiums. Anytime I had a free moment I tried to get to see some other events – volleyball, handball, hockey, BMX, boxing etc, I was seated at the finish line when Mo Farah won the 5000m and the Jamaican team smashed the world record in the 4×100 relay in front of 80,000 screaming fans on the last Saturday of the games. These are incredible moments which will be remembered and it was amazing to be part of the Olympics.
Outside of Gymnastics, what event at the Olympics would you most like to commentate on?
The track and field or the Cycling Velodrome I found very exciting. I also did some commentary on the Beach Volleyball which was a lot of fun!
We saw the Dutch athlete Epke Zonderland receive a Gold for the High Bar, do you believe Ireland can ever compete for medals in this sport?
I think so, had Kieran hit his routine on the day (which had a high degree of difficulty and was at the level of the highly talented floor competitors), he could have been right up there. I really believe we can compete for medals in the gymnastics, no doubt about it.
What skills do you believe are needed to be a successful commentator?
You have to have the voice that is acceptable to the audience, have an ability to describe something and to bring a level of flow to what is going on at the time. A good commentator knows when to speak and when not to and to leave it to the pictures to paint the story.
You need to be prepared to put in a lot of time to research. Preparation is vital. It takes a while to get your eye trained to be able to identify what you’re looking for.
Would you have any advice for somebody looking to get into broadcasting/commentating?
You need to be prepared to knock on every door possible. Put together samples of your work and get them in front of the decision makers. Keep pushing and don’t take no for an answer. It takes a significant amount of determination and practice – like anything you wish to succeed in.
A qualification in journalism can help get a foothold but it will come down to your ability to broadcast. If I was starting now I would start as a sports editor and work my way up from there
When not involved in broadcasting Jerry works as a trainer, presenter and coach. His company First HRD run a very successful programme called “Inside Out” training, details on www.firsthrd.ie . You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org.