1998, Kuala Lumpur, was my first Commonwealth Games, in fact, my first major swimming event for BBC Radio 5 Live. Although I had covered the 1993 European Long Course Champs in Sheffield five years previously for Radio Sheffield, this was my first BIG swimming gig and it provided the first part of that all-important learning curve, about a sport I have come to love so much and the characters within it. Sadly, most of them are not given the prominence they deserve, but that’s an issue and talking topic for another day.
The Malaysian Games were eventful for many reasons. The Prime Minister was languishing in jail for trumped up charges, which threatened all kinds of diplomatic possibilities. On the eve of the swimming events we had an enoromous electrical storm that nearly washed away the recently completed pool and most of its inhabitants. It wasn’t a venue that allowed for much protection from the elements, but the storm did little to quell the 90 per cent plus humidity that was prevalent for the majority of the swimming programme. If the Games return there, t-shirt wringing should be considered as a possible sport. We all found sweat glands we never knew existed.
The Thorpedo introduced himself to a non-swimming public for the first time – the World Championships in Perth earlier that year had indicated the arrival of something special, but it was in Kuala Lumpur where people started talking about the size of his feet and whether he really was some sporting freak.
James Hickman became the first high profile victim of the recently introduced one-start rule. Too eager to get going in the 100 metres butterfly, he toppled in. James took it all like a true gent, another reaction befitting the nature of the Games, and bounced back to win in his other main discipline.
Adam Ruckwood discovered how fickle form can be. 200 metres backstroke champion in Victoria four years earlier, he failed to make the ’98 final and, as good as gold, though obviously hurting inside, he came up to the BBC radio commentary point to explain that he was at a loss as to where it had gone wrong.
Mark Foster may be heading up towards 50 international medals now, but carrying the English flag in Kuala Lumpur is still one of his proudest moments. As is befitting the man, he was out shopping when the call was made to tell him of the honour. Mobile phones were not as advanced as they are now, certainly in that part of the world, and getting hold of “Foz” for an interview, proved to be beyond the reaches of the Sepang telephone system.
But, from a broadcasters’ point of view, that’s a big plus for the Commonwealth Games. You get a chance to talk, sometimes at length, to the competitors. There isn’t the clamour for sound bites, snatched interviews, that there so often is at an Olympics or World Championships. The whole atmosphere of the event, whilst being competitive and often highly so, is more open and inclusive.
Bob Ballard is the swimming correspondent for BBC Radio 5 Live