Faces on television are familiar in their own way. A consistent presence in your living room yet never actually there, separated by a glass screen and at times a flickering satellite connection. Therefore it was quite odd to be sitting in a living room with a face that has consistently been associated with sport broadcasting in Britain for over 20 years. And it wasn’t even my living room. Hazel Irvine has presented from every major sporting event in the world; at every summer Olympics since the Seoul 1988 edition, four football World Cups, Wimbledon, Ryder Cups. You name it, she has been there.
So it was natural of me to ask how a history of art graduate from the St Andrews ended up trackside. “Well,” says Hazel, who is talking to me while preparing her young daughter’s dinner, “it was simply a case of right place right time. I never had a grand plan that I would present Wimbledon or report live from the opening ceremony of a London Olympics, I just loved sport and talking about sport.
“Even then sport was a big thing up in St Andrews. I did everything. I was involved in the golf club to the cross country club to whatever I could get involved with really. One of the largest clubs, if you could call it that, was something called spinaerobics. It was organised by a former professor, I can’t remember his name sadly, which regularly had upwards of 200 people turning up on a Friday evening at the sports hall doing their best aerobics to the ‘hit parade of the day’. It’s a special place, I think if anyone cannot get excited when they see the clubhouse and the Swilcan Bridge as it is without doubt one of the most iconic views in the whole of sport.”
A seemingly unlikely career kicked off when she was asked to step in for Sally McNair, the presenter of the long running Scotsport on Scottish Television. “I was so fresh. I had been working as a continuity announcer and it was only on account of Sally’s pregnancy that I got on TV.”
Scotsport was renowned for its football coverage and Hazel looks back fondly on what was a quantum leap from passing comment on Picasso to recounting a scrappy goal or crunching tackle at St Mirren v Morton. “It was a great time. I was working with giants of Scottish broadcasting like Arthur Montford and Archie MacPherson who were absolute gentlemen and I was being sent to places like Burntisland to cover the opening rounds of the Scottish Cup. It was fun. I remember being at the old press box at Ibrox and went off in search of the toilets. Being back in the day the press box didn’t have a ladies’ toilet so I had to use the gents’. As I was leaving a voice came out from behind me, I don’t jnow who it was and it simply said ‘I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.’ It was just something so different, I absolutely loved it.”
This led me to ask Hazel about her role at the time. Unlike today, when there are a number of female broadcasters involved in sport such as Clare Balding and Gabby Logan, the days of yore belonged to men who wore sports jackets. Asking if she ever felt as though she was ever a pioneer, I was given a polite and very grounded rebuke. “I was just trying to get on, there was never any desire to get on a soapbox. I was simply enjoying myself and too involved in work to notice anything like that.”
It was indeed a rapid career trajectory. Only a couple of months after leaving St Andrews, and in the same year as becoming a fixture with Scotsport, Hazel was off to the 1988 Olympic Games with ITV, working in studio with a true titan of sports reporting in Britain, Dickie Davies. “Being young I just seemed to think these things happened but looking back it was something else. At the interview in London I was asked to recount Allan Wells’ gold medal win in Moscow. Allan Wells was my hero so I knew the commentary off by heart. So I like to think that helped – yet again a case being in the right place at the right time.”
The above anecdote only confirms what anyone who has watched Hazel anchor an event has ever suspected – that she is in possession of a wealth of insight and depth of knowledge about sport. Even when telling me about snooker – which she presents for the BBC – a real excitement comes into her voice as she explains at great length the tactics and emotions behind the game. As someone who is yet to be convinced by snooker I was silenced by a speech full to the brim with words such as “compelling” and “draining.” This is not the sort of overly dramatic hyperbole deployed by some presenters, however; it was genuine passion for sport. When recounting, almost casually, moments from her career such as talking to the legendary Seve Ballasteros before he retired from golf or her preparation for presenting the parade of nations at London 2012, she comes across as a fan but added the caveat that: “You’ve got to remember when the countdown starts that you have a job to do. People are relying on you to tell a story. The presenter is never, ever the story. You’re part of it but not the vital part.”
As she made up a Weetabix coating for her daughter’s dinner of chicken dippers I asked the terribly unoriginal ‘So what was your career highlight?’ question.
“Well, I think I’ve done everything I have ever hankered after doing. Presenting a home Olympics was incredible. I’d say that my career has been not one moment but a series of moments which just give one great buzz. Presenting the upcoming 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow would be really enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the Ryder Cup coming back to Scotland but I have to say anything to do with the Olympics has been a highlight for me. Before London 2012 at one of the many rehearsals before the opening ceremony I was able to walk with my daughter hand in hand into the Olympic Stadium and watch her take it all in. That was a highlight.”
In an era when media personalities are often derided and mocked, it is refreshing to see that genuine love of sport is still around and Hazel Irvine embodies that completely.