Interviews

Clare Balding On Commentating, The Olympics, Cancer – And Getting to the top

The Olympics could not have come at a better time for Clare Balding, the sports commentator and TV and radio presenter. ‘London is the pinnacle of my career,’ she says. “I am so lucky that it happened in my 40s. Timing is everything in sports commentary. If I had been in my 20s,
I wouldn’t have had the experience.”

Last year Clare became the first woman to commentate on a Wimbledon final; and this year, as part of the BBC team for the London Olympics, she will be covering open-water swimming in Hyde Park, indoor swimming and modern pentathlon.

Commentating is hard, very different from presenting a panel of experts in the studio at half-time, although this has its own pressures. Does she ever worry that she will say something daft? She replies:

I always worry about saying something stupid. If you are on air for a long time, there is more chance of messing up. I have said some stupid things – everyone has.

Clare is the main presenter for all the BBC’s racing coverage, which includes the Grand National, Royal Ascot, the Derby and Prix de l’Arc deTriomphe.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg: the highlights of her biography include rugby internationals, The Open golf championship, The Boat Race and some involvement in the last two Olympic Games. She has also moved into other areas of broadcasting, hosting Radio 4’s Ramblings programme (interviewing people while on a country walk) for nine years, and recently writing and presenting the radio series Sport and the British.

She has also hosted Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, Pick of the Week and Broadcasting House, and has co-presented Countryfile. Her first book, My Animals and Other Family, about her childhood, will be published in August. At 41, her output is prodigious.

Clare grew up in a horse-racing family –her father, Ian, is a well-known racing trainer whose successes include Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, and her brother Andrew is also a trainer. Clare herself was the top women’s amateur flat jockey during her first year at Cambridge. She also rowed, played tennis and later became President of the Cambridge Union.

Did she consider a career as a trainer? She laughs. “My family has a rather old-fashioned view towards gender, and that was that. And I wanted to write.”

Sports broadcaster
 John Inverdale, a 
visitor to her father’s 
stud, inspired her to become a sports correspondent, and so she started to listen to sports commentary on Radio 5 live, had a voice test and was lucky. She got a job as a trainee racing commentator, before moving on to cricket, rugby and everything else.

Sports broadcasting is dominated by men and it has been a tough ride to the top. “I learn a lot from listening to, and by watching, other presenters,’ she says.‘I enjoy watching sports when other people are commentating. I went to see James Corden in One Man,Two Guvnors and got an idea from the show that I used on Countryfile. You have to keep listening and watching. Presenters are all different – I am a high-energy person. I don’t have the laid-back style of Gary Lineker, who has a lot of charm.”

But it has not all been plain sailing. In 2009 she had thyroid cancer; two operations and radioactive iodine treatments followed. I ask how she dealt with it and whether she was really as positive as she outwardly looked?

“I slotted in treatment and operations when I could, to allow me to recover in time for the Derby and so on,” she says.

Because 
I really love what I do and get an adrenaline rush from it, it helped. I had a cancer that was very treatable – you have to trust the doctor. I just thought, ‘I know people who have had this’. I told very few people beause seing other people’s fear makes you frightened – it’s a real mental battle.

I sense this is enough so turn the conversation back to horses. No woman has ever won a big race. Why? “All you need is to ride a horse that wins,” Clare replies.

“Hayley Turner is possibly the one most likely to win a major UK title, something like the 2000 Guineas or maybe the St. Leger. Later in the season is more likely as the rider has a better relationship with the horse.”

And the Olympics? Our equestrian profile has been a bit disappointing recently. “I think it’s likely that we could win a gold medal in dressage.’” Once again Clare warms to the topic of the Olympics, and she’s off…

This article was published in The Investor, published on behalf of St James’s Place

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