The Ballads of the Games

Radio 2’s continued revival of the Radio Ballads concept – the Olympic-themed Ballads of the Games – has been in full flow for the past five weeks, and concludes on Monday 6 August.

I’m not sure what Ewan MacColl would have made of the theme – it’s hard to imagine him being inspired by Olympians of the calibre of, say, Craig Bellamy, for example. When it kicked off we’d already suffered a sea of coverage; it felt a little like the BBC might be taking the Ballads in vain here. And anyway, was it going to be possible to come up with enough interesting songs about sport? Much as I love Muse‘s bombastic ‘official single’, it’s hardly full of lyrical nuance – and you’d never be able to hear any of the interviews over that racket, anyway.

But now the Games have begun, with a few hiccups but a generally positive response – the Ballads have turned out to be a refreshing reminder of the moments and people that really mattered. These are the stories MacColl might have approved of, one suspects: the ones that brought out the humanity of the Games, the stories of years of training and toil, remarkable circumstance, and the rewards reaped (or not).

It’s turned out to be an interesting journey, with a strong focus on the modern Games – the first programme, Olympia, took in “great Olympians from 776BC to London’s Games in 1908 and 1948”. A world away from the McDonald’s chips controversy and ‘brand police’, I particularly enjoyed hearing about The Wenlock Olympian Games, a Shropshire-based forerunner of the modern Olympics, written by Julie Matthews and sung with chirpy charm by Nancy Kerr. I’d much rather watch pig racing than ‘individual dressage’…

Episodes two and three examined both German Olympic Games of the 20th century, both of which were to have profound consequences. Jez Lowe paid an appropriate tribute to Jesse Owens, whose heroic running so got up Hitler’s nose in Berlin 1936, while the Munich Games – and massacre – of 1972 was dealt with sensitively and even-handedly.

The Munich programme was the first to feature a wealth of interviews with those who had first-hand experience of the events described – key to a Radio Ballad, and a great strength of this series. Soviet teenager Olga Korbut’s emotional performance (and gymnastic derring-do) melted many hearts in 1972, and it was great to hear the story from the woman herself, talking to the producers in Arizona.

But Korbut’s story would not be the most memorable that year. Although he did not condone the act, it was still chilling to hear Palestinian Olympic Committee president Dijbril Rajoub describe the murders as “spilt milk”. Wisely, the difficult task of writing a song about the events was handed to the sensitive, thoughtful Chris Wood. The resulting track, Masterpiece (which I was lucky enough to hear live in May) is an astonishing piece of work. Its title is derived from widow Ankie Spitzer’s description of the massacre, and Wood subtly blends sarcasm, malevolence and melancholy, his weary delivery accentuating the ache of impotence. Like MacColl’s The Moving On Song, from 1964’s The Travelling People, it works just as well outside the context of the programme, though in this case the devastating interviews woven between its verses are just as compelling.

Episode four, Going For Gold, explored how much the medals mean to the athletes, and told the stories of just how hard they were prepared to work for them, to the sound of Boo Hewerdine’s excellent, almost mournful Getting There. Failure, of course, is just as much a part of the story as victory – more so, in fact. For some athletes it is a reminder of mortality. The Unsung Heroes, soundtracked by Julie Matthews, told stories of defeat: from Brendan Foster’s irritation at an insensitive interviewer (which he dealt with rather more gracefully than Mark Cavendish did at the weekend), to the “traumatic” image of an injured Paula Radcliffe weeping trackside at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

On the day a US coach described a Chinese swimmer’s performance as “disturbing”, the Ballads explored Olympic controversies. While keeping politics separate from sport is a troublesome idea, again it was the personal stories that drew in the listener – the US athletes told they wouldn’t be going to Moscow in 1980, the East German competitors systematically poisoned with steroids (including the remarkable tale of Heidi – now Andreas – Krieger) and an inspirational interview with John Carlos, who talked about the world-rocking salutes he and Tommie Smith gave in Mexico City.

The series hasn’t always got it right. There have been a few cheesy moments, while the narrative has often exposed the songwriting process. While it’s clever to lift phrases from the interviews, when you’re singing something that’s just been spelled out, some of the magic evaporates. And it was often a bit tricky to figure out who you were hearing speak, though the excellent website helped on that front.

Overall, though, the series has been a success, with the incisive, fascinating and balanced interviews – there was even room for some criticism of London 2012 – key to this. And the songs about sport? There were some clumsy ones, and some that wouldn’t work outside the format, but there have been many golden moments too. And they aren’t really about sport anyway – look at Bob Dylan’s Hurricane, Roy Harper’s When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease or Warren Zevon’s Boom Boom Mancini. They’re about people, and stories that might otherwise be forgotten, which is after all what folk singers do best. And the likes of Matthews, Lowe, Wood, Hewerdine, Martin Simpson and many more did the job beautifully.

There’s just one more programme to go – the series finale will concentrate on the marathon, and will be on Radio 2 at 9pm on Monday 6 August. You can listen to more clips like the ones here on the BBC Radio 2 website.

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