BBC Sport’s anti-smartness bias

“[James McEvoy] is an unashamed geek - he was reading a book on physics, as you do, to see if it could improve his performance.” - Radio 5 swimming commentator

“You need some kind of accountancy degree to work out what each of them needs to do in the final round…” - BBC 2 Gymnastics commentator.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get my goat, it’s people mocking athletes for trying to use science to improve their game. OK, a second thing: pretending that subtracting decimals is degree-level accountancy, rather than year 5 numeracy. Three things, if you count people who can’t.

It’s troubling to me that while Ofcom - correctly - stamp down on casual racism in TV programmes, casual anti-intellectualism, especially in sports, is waved on through. It’s not even anti-intellectualism, it’s anti-smartness: some BBC commentators have never grown out of the school changing rooms “let’s all laugh at nerds” mentality. Never mind if understanding fluid flow can help you to improve your swimming stroke, or if a bit of game theory can help decide where to place your penalty, or if knowing how your eyes focus can help you plan your run to catch a skied cricket ball - unless you’re running entirely on guts, bringing a lot of passion, keeping precise track of how much this medal will mean to you - you’re somehow not a proper athlete, at best a subhuman who’s somehow managed to fluke a place in the team despite having a brain.

Do you need to be a scientist or a mathematician to be an elite sportsperson? Clearly not. But you don’t need to be two metres tall, you don’t need to be from Birmingham, you don’t even need perfect eyesight. Those things might help - they might be remarked on in the commentary - but they’d never be mocked for them.

If we want a culture where science and maths are seen as important things to study, we might start by making sure people who study them aren’t criticised for it when kids are watching.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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