On July 24, Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan smashed the 100m women’s hurdles world record in the semi-final of the World Athletics Championship in Oregon, USA. She dominated a field that included America’s former record holder Kendra Harrison. Amusan had barely crossed the finishing line when the BBC crew comprising of Andrew Cotter, Michael Johnson, and Steve Cram began casting doubt on the timing of her record-breaking world performance. Andrew Cotter said, “She has smashed the world record; she has really won 12.12 seconds, taken almost a tenth of a second.” Michael Johnson added, “You don’t beat Kendra Harrison by such a margin.” Cotter continued, “We are trying to process this, but 12.12 seconds?”
Britain’s Cindy Sember and Japan’s Mako Fukube, who came fourth and eighth respectively in the race, posted national records. In response to the fast times, Cotter said, “Something is going on; we hope those times in the first heat are correct. Everyone was running extraordinary fast in the first heat.” He said, “We should highlight how quick the time has been and hope that the timing is accurate.”
Michael Johnson dismissively said, “I am not believing these times.” Cotter then asked Colin Jackson, the former 110 m World Champion, what he thought about the race and Jackson replied, “It would be interesting that the IAAF would have to ratify the record and check it quite intensely.” Cotter said, “You want to believe this, but 12.12.” Steve Cram remarked, “I noticed her reaction time was 0.144 and if you are shaving record, you have to have a super-fast reaction time.” Michael Johnson said, “In order to break a record you have to put everything. The margin is so big so the reaction time, leaning has to happen before you break the record.” Cotter then said, “Cindy Sember has qualified for the final. At least it is fair. If the timing is off, it is off for everyone.” At the commencement of the final, Cotter said, “Whether the timing is right or not and that will all be subject to be ratification, we have the right athletes. Tobi Amusan was much quicker, whether that world record is ratified or not.”
At the BBC studio, the pundits stated that Tobi Amusan would have to back up her world-recording-breaking feat, but it would be challenging for her as all eyes would be on her. In the final race, Tobi Amusan eventually silenced her BBC critics by winning the final in 12.06 seconds.
The BBC’s response to Amusan’s feat contrasts sharply with how the broadcaster responded to the other two world records broken during the championship. When America’s Sydney McLaughlin crossed the finishing line in 50.68 seconds to break the women’s 400 m hurdles world record, nobody in the BBC commentating team questioned the authenticity of the timing. Instead, as she approached the finishing line, Andrew Cotter screamed, “Watch the clock!” And after she won, “She smashes the world record. Incredible, 50.68 seconds.”
Cotter continued, “Unbelievable; she is unbeatable, but that is a time; she would have got through the initial rounds of 400 m flat jumping hurdles; she transcends the sports.” Michael Johnson remarked, “I am so excited about it …50.68 is a great time for a flat 400 m runner …she has the ability to hurdle well, so she is not off balance; that is why the time is so fast; she has great speed and endurance.”
Similarly, when Armand “Mondo” Duplantis scaled the 6.21 m hurdle to break the pole vault world record, there wasn’t a single moment of doubt from the BBC commentators. Instead, the event commentator shouted, “The flying Swede does it again. More magic from Mondo. This man was born to pole vault; produces the highest pole ever seen. Incredible, extraordinary… Look how high it is.”
Malcolm X once said, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” One must look into the history book to understand BBC’s shameful and unprofessional attitude towards Tobi Amusan. The BBC Empire Service was formed in 1932 and served as the propaganda arm of the British Empire. During the first broadcast of the BBC Empire Service, John Reith, the founding director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, said, “If we can induce among the constituent parts of the Empire, a greater understanding and a greater sympathy… If, in general, as is our hope, the several far scattered units of the family may be drawn closer together. Then our effort, which culminates in a preliminary sense today and definitely in the afternoon of Christmas Day, when His Majesty the King who speaks for the first time to the Empire, as a whole, then I say, our efforts are amply rewarded.”
Although BBC Empire Service has now been renamed BBC World Service, BBC is yet to shake off the shackles of its colonial mind-set.
When one watches BBC during sporting competitions like the Olympics and World Athletics Championship, one could get the impression that it is diverse, especially when one sees the likes of Colin Jackson, Denise Lewis, Michael Johnson, and Jeanette Kwayke. However, the presence of these black faces does not erase the fact that BBC, including its sporting unit, is a neo-colonial enterprise. During the championship, in addition to the three world records, nine championship records were broken. However, BBC questioned none of the records. So why the uproar about Tobi Amusan’s record? Amusan’s victory was against the expectation of the BBC commentators as she was competing for Nigeria in an event not dominated by West Africans. Her performance did not fit the usual narrative of East Africans dominating the middle distances and Americans and Jamaicans dominating the sprint. In short, instead of “staying in her lane” by being a fringe participant, she had the nerve to dominate and smash the world record and make an American look ordinary.
The commentators could not hide their western arrogance irrespective of their colour. Andrew Cotter’s joy when Cindy Sember qualified is a classic manifestation of this arrogance. If Tobi Amusan had followed the path of other sportsmen and women of Nigerian heritage such as Anthony Joshua, Bukayo Saka, Christine Ohuruogu, and Daley Thompson in competing for Great Britain, the probability of Johnson and Cotter questioning the world record would have been almost zero.
BBC athletic commentators set invisible boundaries for who they expect to excel in certain events. But when outsiders from these regions dominate against their expectations, they often raise their colonial eyebrows. For instance, when South Africa’s Caster Semenya began to dominate the 800 m at the London and Rio Olympics, BBC’s Paula Radcliffe embarked on a personal crusade to dehumanise her. So when you see the likes of Michael Johnson cast aspersion on Amusan’s timing, one should not be surprised — he is just manifesting what could be described as Anglo-American exceptionalism in black face.
BBC’s ugly reaction to Tobi Amusan’s performance should serve as a wake-up call to many middle-class Africans who often see western news channels like the BBC and CNN as arbiters of truth. It is time to see them for what they are: neo-colonial propaganda tools for western hegemony.
Sule, CFA, writes via firstname.lastname@example.org