David Coleman: 'One word and you knew who he was'

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David Coleman: The face of BBC Sport

David Coleman, who has died at the age of 87, was the veteran broadcaster of 11 Olympic Games as part of a career spanning more than 40 years.

Between 1954 and 2000, Coleman commentated on a variety of sports for the BBC, in addition to presenting shows such as A Question Of Sport.

As well as being made an OBE in 1992, Coleman became the first journalist to be given the Olympic Order award, awarded in 2000 for his contribution to the Olympic movement.


Born in Cheshire on 26 April 1926, although his family originally hailed from County Cork, Coleman went to a local grammar school and became a keen amateur runner, winning several national cross-country championships as well as the Manchester Mile.

David Coleman
Coleman began presenting Grandstand in 1958

He began working as a reporter on the Stockport Express, continuing his journalism during national service by writing for an army newspaper.

By the age of 22 he was editing a local newspaper in Cheshire, with hopes of developing his running career.

Hamstring problems ruled him out of trials for the 1952 British Olympic team, so he wrote to a BBC editor to suggest covering athletics in the Saturday evening sports programme.

He was offered the job, with his first screen appearance coming on Sportsview on 6 May 1954. Coleman interviewed golfer Roberto de Vicenzo as the production team tried to find Roger Bannister, who had broken the four-minute mile earlier in the day.

In 1958, Coleman was asked to front a new Saturday afternoon programme named Grandstand by BBC Head of Sport Peter Dimmock.

In these days of dedicated sports channels, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of Grandstand, which led the way in showcasing a wide variety of sporting action each week.

David Coleman
On the set of Grandstand in 1978

Coleman's knowledgeable presentation was infused with a genuine enthusiasm as he worked long hours through the week to learn all the facts and figures needed for the forthcoming weekend.

Nowhere was his dedication and knowledge better illustrated than at the teleprinter as the football results came in.

His successor in the Grandstand chair, Frank Bough, was full of admiration. "Coleman was the only one who could tell you that a win had put Arsenal on top of Division One on goal average, or that was East Fife's first score draw in 19 consecutive games," he said.

However, that commitment led to accusations he was difficult to work with.

The late Brian Moore, who was a football commentator for ITV, was disparaging about Coleman in his autobiography.

"I imagine he was a pretty uncomfortable guy to work with," wrote Moore. "His standards were high and his temper was pretty short."

Moving on

As well as fronting Grandstand for 10 years, Coleman also co-presented the BBC Sports Review of the Year from 1961 to 1983.

David Coleman
Coleman was one of the BBC commentators for the 1966 World Cup finals

In 1968, he handed his Grandstand seat to Frank Bough, moving on to a midweek show, Sportsnight With Coleman.

He became the BBC's senior football commentator in 1971, covering five FA Cup finals, before handing over to John Motson in 1979.

He still reported on football for another two years, before concentrating on athletics, and also continued to present big occasions, such as the Grand National and the World Cup.

He also fronted 11 Olympic Games between 1960 and 2000.


Coleman's journalistic background was most notably in evidence when he anchored the 1972 Olympics programme.

Working from scant information and a closed circuit TV monitor, he held together the coverage of the unfolding horrors in Munich as Palestinian gunmen held hostage, and then killed, a group of Israeli athletes.

BBC broadcaster Barry Davies described Coleman's coverage as "just the right balance of authority and sensitivity".


Coleman was famously prone to gaffes, including: "That's the fastest time ever run - but it's not as fast as the world record."

Others included: "There's going to be a real ding-dong when the bell goes" and "for those of you watching on black-and-white sets, Everton are wearing the blue shirts."

Private Eye's Colemanballs column gleefully reproduced many of his gaffes - much to his annoyance - but he was more relaxed about his character on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, despite having a finger permanently attached to his earpiece.

Other work

Coleman's vast sporting knowledge made him the ideal host for Question of Sport, which became British television's longest-running quiz show.

Question of Sport
Bill Beaumont, Coleman & Ian Botham on a Question of Sport

In 1984, he won the Television and Radio Industries Club award as Sports Presenter of the Year and, in 1992, he was awarded an OBE. He finally retired from broadcasting in 2000.


Sir Bobby Charlton, World Cup winner: "The players trusted David to be absolutely correct on certain things on the football field, he was a charming man. I couldn't tell you anyone else who was better."

Kevin Keegan, former England striker and manager: "You just felt he was a master of what he was covering and he knew everything about it. He probably did. He just had that voice. He is a true legend."

Lord Sebastian Coe, two-time Olympic 1500m champion: "He was just incomparably the best. It wasn't just that he carefully choreographed intro pieces, but he could always capture the moment."

Jonathan Edwards, Olympic gold medal triple jumper: "David was one of that rare breed who had the ability to say just a word and you knew who he was, like Sean Connery in acting and Bill McLaren in rugby."

Brendan Foster, Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist: "David Coleman was the greatest sports broadcaster that ever lived. He was a giant of sports broadcasting. It was a privilege to know him and it was a privilege to have him commentating on races during my career."

Steve Cram, former 1500m world record holder: "Broadcasting, like athletics, is about performance and he wanted to produce the best he could. He used to always tell me that I should endeavour to work with the best to get the best results."

Tony Hall, BBC director general: "Whether presenting, commentating or offering analysis, he set the standard for all today's sports broadcasters."