Commentary box seat

Sportscaster Gerard Whateley hopes to live up to the ABC's long history of exemplary Olympics coverage.
Sportscaster Gerard Whateley hopes to live up to the ABC's long history of exemplary Olympics coverage.

TO APPRECIATE the emotional significance of the Olympic Games, you don't need to speak to an athlete - a broadcaster such as Gerard Whateley can cut to the essence of the magic with the same fierce passion. This is the pinnacle, and nothing else even comes close.

Whateley's Olympic memories flow freely, starting with mental snapshots from childhood and building into a lifetime's gallery of unforgettable moments.

As he prepares to add more memories as part of the ABC Radio team heading to London, Whateley waxes lyrical: Debbie Flintoff-King winning the 400-metre hurdles in 1988 is an early favourite, as is Dean Lukin's weightlifting gold in 1984. And of course, Cathy Freeman's fabled run into national legend in 2000.

''That's the nature of the Olympics,'' Whateley says. ''The moments that happen burn into the national psyche, so whether these sports are mainstream or not, for those 2½ weeks, they absolutely captivate. Those deeds resonate forever more.''

London will be Whateley's second Games for the ABC and his third overall, having covered the Sydney Olympics for Channel Ten from outside the village. ''It ended up being the drugs round,'' he says, recalling more time spent in Sydney courtrooms than at Homebush. It was full of memorable moments, such as ''one of the coaches lifting off his toupee and claiming the drugs were for his hair growth''.

He was in Beijing for the ABC in 2008, the fulfilment of a career dream. ''I've always wanted to be a sports broadcaster and part of that was one day getting to an Olympics and calling these moments. So as much as Melbourne Cups and grand finals are the staples of what you dream of, the idea of covering an Olympic Games has always been there.

''I can recall moments from ABC broadcasts throughout the years, as well as watching things on television, and you always dreamt that one day, that might be you. And it's come to pass.''

His commentary debut in China reinforced just what a privileged position it is.

''I was really fortunate that I was in the stadium for Usain Bolt's two world records. I was at the Water Cube for Michael Phelps' eighth gold medal. I called Lionel Messi in the football gold-medal match. And I called Kobe Bryant in the basketball gold-medal match. So if you've got this view that the Olympics is the greatest show on earth, then I got to see the peak of the species.''

His Olympic broadcasting inspirations are two men he watched and listened to growing up; men who are still at the top of their game and are now Whateley's peers. ''Tim Lane and Bruce McAvaney are the ones I grew up with, I suppose. And they both called Cathy Freeman.

''I think the whole profession is built on doing justice to the great moments. It's a privilege, but it's also a responsibility, and when you hear it done so well - the biggest moments of all - there's a beautiful synergy between the race itself and the commentary. You think back to however you saw it, however you heard it; it lives in the words as well as the deeds.

''Bruce and Tim knew from a long way out that it was going to be the moment of the home Games, the biggest moment they would probably ever broadcast. That they would both capture it so superbly speaks to the quality of who they are and what they've done.''

Whateley says being part of the ABC's Olympic tradition was a factor in his decision last year to resist attempts by 3AW to lure him to its stable. He probably could have gone to London with the commercial station, but that's not the same as covering the Games for the national broadcaster.

''Part of the attraction of the ABC and the gift of what it has is [that the] Olympics and Commonwealth Games have for so long been part of what they've done,'' he says. ''It's always been an attraction to be able to do more than just bread-and-butter domestic sport.

''There would have been the ability to go with [3AW] as well, but there's such a heritage with it here and I know the heritage of the ABC well; it was one of the first things I made sure I learnt when I came here.

''You follow in the footsteps of giants … so I feel very much like I'm going to continue a lineage of fine work at the swimming, and I feel a great responsibility towards it.''

This story Commentary box seat first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.