David Owen

Given how vital television has become for Big Sport, it is amusing - and, I think, therapeutic - to recall the reluctance with which the owners of some major sports properties embraced the medium.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself was not exactly over-eager.

"We in the IOC have done well without television for 60 years, and will do so for the next 60 years," said Avery Brundage, then IOC President, in 1955, in a comment noted in David Miller’s monumental official history of the organisation and the Olympic Games.

You do not have to be a social media-powered keyboard warrior to conclude that the American’s remark has not aged well.

Brundage, though, was far from alone in adopting this sort of view.

We recently passed the 60th anniversary of the first televised Grand National, the celebrated Liverpool horse-racing epic - though with the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, it was understandable that hardly anyone seemed to notice.

The BBC had been trying for some time to overcome the misgivings of race manager Mirabel Topham.

The Grand National was first televised 60 years ago ©Getty Images
The Grand National was first televised 60 years ago ©Getty Images

Topham, a former actress who was cut from a similar autocratic cloth to Brundage, was concerned about the possible impact of live television coverage on on-course attendance figures.

Her resistance had started to crack some 18 months earlier, on 6 November 1958, when the cameras had been wheeled in for a less prestigious Aintree steeplechase.

This was aired after that day’s edition of the well-known British children’s programme, Watch With Mother.

Topham had proclaimed on inking the deal: "In the dim and distant future, we may consider televising the National."

On 26 March 1960, this "dim and distant" future duly arrived. Viewers were able to watch as the favourite, Merryman II, galloped to victory.

In a display of toughness endemic to the steeplechase jockey’s profession, the winner was partnered by Gerry Scott, who had broken his collarbone less than two weeks earlier.

Afterwards, Topham and her colleagues found that, while gate receipts were indeed down, their profit was up by £2,000 ($2,550/€2,300). 

"So far, television has generally paid us", they concluded, and a national institution was born.

With the circuit more than two miles long, horse-racing fans swiftly concluded that they could get a far better sense of a contest which routinely featured more than 40 runners from their living-room TV screens than from any vantage-point along the pancake-flat course.

One of the reasons broadcasts of the race became so popular over the decade which followed was the BBC’s use of a so-called "roving eye" camera mounted on a vehicle, initially a standard BBC van.

 Broadcasters are now essential to the way sport operates ©Getty Images
Broadcasters are now essential to the way sport operates ©Getty Images

This was possible because a Grand Prix motor-racing circuit had been built at Aintree in 1954.

Sir Stirling Moss, the British driver who sadly died this week, won his first British Grand Prix there, in 1955, ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary Argentinian racer.

Ray Lakeland, the BBC man who produced all the early Grand National broadcasts, once explained to me how the "roving eye" concept was developed, and that it was not without teething problems.

They first used it, so Lakeland said, for the Lincolnshire Handicap, a flat race that also tended to feature dozens of runners, at Lincoln, a racecourse beside a road that was closed on race days.

"I persuaded our engineers to put a camera on top of their camera van," Lakeland told me, adding, “I thought I had better give it a bit of a start."

So, he went on, "I placed it half a furlong along from the start and set it off at the same time as the horses set off.

"Within about four strides, they overtook it. I didn’t realise that a horse can go from nought to 30 miles per hour in about three strides."

Once they had got the logistics right, however, the idea worked a treat, assisted greatly by the skills of Don Mackay, a camera operator whose working garb included a skull-hugging pre-war flying helmet.

Topham, it is worth underlining, was by no means the last major sports event owner to be won around to the benefits of live television.

Seven years later, in the run-up to the 1967 Grand National in early April, Football League chairmen sat down to discuss a BBC live television proposal worth £781,000 ($1 million/€901,000).

It took them less than half an hour to turn it down.