The Changing Face Of BBC’s Euro Champs Coverage

The changing face of BBC’s Euro Champs coverage

Last-minute deal to cover Rome on its digital channels has been well received but long-time fans remember when the event enjoyed blanket coverage on BBC1 and BBC2

British athletics fans were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief this week when BBC belatedly confirmed it would be showing coverage from the European Championships, which starts on Friday in Rome. Long-time followers of the sport, meanwhile, were still quietly non-plussed by the fact is ‘only’ on BBC iPlayer, red button, website and app.

BBC’s Euro Champs coverage

As an athletics-mad teenager, the first European Championships I watched was 1982 in Athens. The first day was shown on BBC2 from 16:20-17:10 followed by BBC1 from 18:25-19:05 and 20:00-20:10. In other words, prime time coverage.

Back then, the coverage of the European Championships was similar to the kind that BBC serves up for Wimbledon tennis with multiple hours every day. With David Coleman and Ron Pickering at the helm, all the major action was captured.

Those were the days of The Two Ronnies, John Craven’s Newsround and Blankety Blank with Terry Wogan. The only alternative for British television viewers was ITV as Channel 4 didn’t yet exist and it would be many years before households would have multiple channels to choose from, not to mention the internet, YouTube, Netflix and so on.

In short, the British public in 1982 was literally force fed athletics from the European Championships, which is partly why winners at the event like Daley Thompson and Steve Cram became household names.

Coe, McKean and Cram in 1986 (Mark Shearman)

At the 1986 Euro Champs in Stuttgart, the 800m medal sweep by Seb Coe, Tom McKean and Cram – the famous ‘three Spitfires out of the sky’ moment – was shown on BBC2 from 16:45-20:00. BBC1 on the same evening was dominated by Fame, Top of the Pops and EastEnders but BBC1 also had a late-night highlights programme from 23:40-00:10 presented by Des Lynam. “There’s a better than average chance of catching the National Anthem well before closedown,” the Radio Times listings said.

Flash forward to 1998 in Budapest – the first Euro Champs I covered for AW – and the BBC coverage was every bit as hefty. A glance at the TV guide for Friday August 21, when, among other things, Iwan Thomas won 400m gold, shows the event was on BBC1 from 10.05-12.05 and 18:30-19:55 in addition to BBC2 from 17:00-18:35 with programmes like Neighbours, Byker Grove and Fawlty Towers squeezed in between.

The final day (Sunday Aug 23) in 1998 saw BBC1 live from 8.00-8:30, 16:00-16:25, 16:40-19:30, plus BBC2 from 8:30-10:45. Weekend programmes like Grandstand and Sunday Grandstand were dominated by athletics, too.

Of course this was a different era. Even in 1998, for example, the internet was in its infancy and there wasn’t any social media.

The changing face of BBC’s Euro Champs coverage

Keely Hodgkinson (Getty)

If you’re wondering why this month’s event in Rome isn’t on BBC1 or BBC2, in the BBC’s defence the European Championships in the 1980s and 1990s did not clash with an Olympic summer. Given this, the Olympics is inevitably going to be a priority this year and you can expect the athletics from Paris to be featured on BBC’s main channels in August.

In addition, BBC didn’t have options such as an iPlayer, app, red button or website in the 1980s or 1990s. Given this, the broadcaster not surprisingly makes good use of them now and viewers have the flexibility to watch events whenever they like rather than having to sit down at a fixed time or hope their VHS video recording actually works.

Still, you can’t help feel sympathy for Britain’s Euro Champs team of 2024. The medals they win in Rome will be just as hard earned as those from yesteryear but they will not enjoy the same platform on terrestrial television. Instead, only hardcore followers will tune into the digital platforms.

A large proportion of the general public probably won’t even realise the event is happening this month as they flick through multiple channels on their television and scroll through web pages and social media on their phone and tablets.

In the battle for eyeballs, the European Athletics Championships faces more competition than at any time in its history. At least the event is now on the BBC’s digital channels, though.

If a deal hadn’t been struck, it would have been pretty disastrous for an already struggling sport.

The changing face of BBC’s Euro Champs coverage

An ultimate global test

Usually, I roll my eyes when I see new events being promoted. Few of them actually ‘stick’. I could write a book on the number of fledgling and ‘innovative’ meetings that have launched amid considerable hoo-ha only to quietly vanish over the years.

Nitro Athletics in Melbourne in 2017 and the Athletics World Cup in London in 2018 are two recent high-profile examples.

The World Athletics Ultimate Championships sounds far more promising, though. Seb Coe and his team have clearly not lurched into it without a huge deal of thought. Increasingly, they are “driven by the data” as well and have a better feel than at any time in history as to “what works”.

The event in Budapest in 2026 promises to be a superb three-day feast of world-class athletics with large sums of money involved for the athletes. “It is,” says Seb Coe, with a rare burst of hyperbole, “show time.”

Best of all, it will fill the void of there being no major championship in 2026.

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