Rio 2016 Profiles: RTE Gymnastics Commentator Jerry Kelly

3rd August 2016, 00:00a.m. | International

Jerry Kelly has worked as a broadcaster for RTE TV from the Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London Olympic games. During those 7 Olympiads, he has commentated on the sport of gymnastics and has seen a lot of progress and development in that time.

Jerry kindly took time from his busy work schedule and preparations for the Rio Olympics to meet Gymnastics Ireland and provide us with some insight into the job of a sports commentator on Gymnastics.

Did you always want to be a sports commentator?

As a child I was always interested in sport and commentating on it. At school my main interests were Rugby and Football. I used to bring my recorder to school games and I could regularly be spotted with my recorder pitch side at many club games here in Dublin. I’d then use those to listen back to my performance and try improve on it the next time. Once I had material I was happy with, I sent it off to various stations and of course RTE. After I finished my studies in UCD, Strawberry Hill in London and The University of Southern California (where I did a Masters in Physical Education), I came back to Ireland to work in sports and leisure management. Around this time, I was also involved in a number of programs for RTE TV and Radio on sports, leisure and lifestyle including a fitness segment on Live at 3. I was a big hit for the over 8s and under 80s!


 How did you get involved in commentating on Gymnastics?

In the lead up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, RTE were looking for someone to take over from Brendan O’Reilly. From my work with RTE at the time, I was asked to go to the Seoul Olympics to commentate on Gymnastics. As I didn’t have a background in Gymnastics, this involved months of research on the sport, the athletes and developing an understanding of the various routines that the gymnasts perform.

That said, throughout my career commentating on Gymnastics, I’ve always had commentating support who provides all the technical advice for the audience watching and listening along with providing me with advice and insight on the gymnasts competing. I’ve worked closely with Colm Murray for the past few Olympiads and we have a great rapport now. Obviously I have to put a huge amount time into study and preparation work ahead of the Games and this Olympics in no different. There have been many hours spent reviewing coverage from previous Olympiads and also the recent European and World Championships. Indeed, I travelled to Bern, Switzerland in June to watch the Europeans. I was lucky enough to see Ireland claim their first European Junior medal when Rhys McClenaghan won the Silver on the Pommel.

As a commentator what sort of interaction can you have with the athletes?

You tend not to spend too much time interacting with the athletes because the truth is, there is little opportunity and you are just too busy. Prior to the competition, Colm and I will be busy planning our schedules, building biographies on the gymnasts, the teams and their coaches. We’ll also be liaising with the local organizing committee about the scoring systems and all logistical information ahead of the competition start. Podium training is a fantastic opportunity to practice our commentary with the gymnasts in action. After that it’s important to give the gymnasts their space and let them focus on the job at hand. Whilst it is great to get insight from those in the sport, you also don’t want to stand in the way of their preparation and your own.

98 gymnasts -- 12 teams of five gymnasts and 38 individuals, 6 Apparatus for men, 4 apparatus for women, multiple sub divisions. How do you keep track of all the activity on the floor and all the technical aspects that go with it?

As I mentioned, in the months leading up to the games I spent a considerable amount of time preparing my database on every athlete. I built a profile on the athlete, their routines, personal information, their results to date and their style. There are lots of video clips on the net which help you, so when it comes to the games you are familiar with many of gymnasts. If I don’t recognize a gymnast immediately I can check out the scoreboard beside the piece of apparatus where the gymnast is working, plus I also have Colm there to pick anything up that I may miss.

With Ireland having two gymnasts competing and our close neighbors in the UK having a number of top athletes and teams competing. Those names can draw the eye; how do you remain objective in your commentary despite that?

In a sense you don’t have time to favor an athlete as there is so much going on. From an RTE perspective, the focus has to be on the Irish when they compete and the audience deserve to know as much about their performances as possible and where they lie in the grand scheme of the competition as a whole. However, you look forward to seeing if the top gymnasts can hit their routines. I’m very much looking forward to watching Simone Biles and seeing her Vault routine. The U.S. team are odds on favorite for the gold and it will be exciting to see them go for the clean routines. There is always some drama though as the more difficult the routine the more likely it is to lead to errors. That said, I do look forward to seeing those surprise packages, those gymnasts who are hitting form at the right time and have the potential to upset the odds. Last year at the Worlds, a Cuban gymnast, Manrique Larduet created a stir and it was very exciting to see. 

What type of commentator are you? How do you decide what the audience wants to hear?

It’s a balance. Gymnastics has fantastic content, amazing pictures, jaw dropping routines and fantastic colors. I try not to interfere with that. I am there to add to the story and not become the story. The gymnasts and their performances are the focus my job is to try to give people information to back up the pictures – the state of the competing, what the gymnast is doing, their background, etc… I’m a commentator that contributes. I really admire George Hamilton on RTE. He has that ability to inform without irritating.


Is there a certain style of language and terminology you have to use when commentating to suit everyone listening?

90% of the audience watching the sport at the Olympics are not avid followers of the sport. Indeed, it might be the very first time they are watching it. Watching gymnastics can actually be an acquired skill. As an experienced commentator, I’m aware of that. The language used in gymnastics can be quite technical so it’s important that the language that I use can be understood by people who might not know too much about the sport. For instance, in gymnastics many of the skills performed are named after the gymnast who first performed the skill in international competition. So you hear the commentator use such names as ‘Yurchenko, Tsukahara and Tkachev’. I try not to use much gymnastics terminology but sometimes it is necessary as it is the quickest way to describe what the gymnast is doing. Again, Colm Murray helps me with that. 

Have you ever found yourself short of things to say when commentating?

As we were chatting about earlier, in gymnastics there is always so much going on at the same time. The challenge actually is to maintain your focus and concentration of the gymnast whose exercise is being shown on the TV and not get distracted by other routines. My role is to commentate on the event – provide background information on the athletes, such as their routines, their form going into the Games and some personal information. My colleague Colm provides the expert technical analysis on the routine performed and why they received the score that they received. Between the two of us, we rarely run out of things to say. 

You have commentated on 7 Olympics in Gymnastics now. There have been a number of progressions in that time. Do you feel the standard is getting higher and if so how?

Yes. Rio will be my 8th Olympic games and it’s been a fabulous journey and the standard has improved significantly since my first games in Seoul 1988. The gymnasts are constantly pushing out the degree of difficulty, trying new combinations to bring added value to their score. The progressions in Parallel Bars and Pommel have been huge in the last two cycles in particular. The spatial awareness and body awareness that these athletes need to have to carry out these routines is incredible.  In gymnastics the results for the routine are based on two scores, the difficulty of the routine performed and the execution. The movements are so intricate, so complex and executed to such a high standard, that it can be difficult at times to see what exactly is happening. Colm and I have to be honest about it at times and call it as we see it.


Having an Olympics so close to home, how did you find London as a venue for the Olympics?

The energy and excitement around London was incredible. The North Greenwich Arena where the gymnastics took place was a wonderful place for this competition. Within the venue there was a very partisan atmosphere. Of course the local crowd would get behind their own gymnasts, which was the case in previous Olympics, but there was a great reception for every athlete no matter where they were from. The British people love their sport and this really came across. Kieran Behan got a great reception. Many would have been familiar with his story and really got behind him. The BBC commentators who were sitting in front of me were willing him on.


What do you believe makes the Olympics so special for a commentator?

The world’s best athletes are there and the eyes of millions from almost every nation in the world are on the city in question. When you add in the astonishing number of media, photographers, volunteers, dignitaries etc, you are swept up in Olympic mania. The host cities are taken over for the games – everything is about the Olympics; I expect Rio to be the same. 

Outside of Gymnastics, what event at the Olympics would you most like to commentate on?

The Track and Field or the Cycling Velodrome I find very exciting.


Do you believe Ireland can ever compete for medals in this sport?

I think so, Kieran has proven that with his performances at the Rio Test Event, where he medaled in his final qualification tournament for Rio. He was unlucky in London but I really believe we can compete for medals in the gymnastics, no doubt about it. Going forward, the performances of Rhys McClenaghan at the European Juniors showed us that there are aspiring gymnasts coming up behind Kieran. Hopefully Ellis can inspire some more of the girls too.


To be a successful commentator what skills do you believe are needed?

Honesty, diligence and a solid knowledge base of the sport that you are commentating on. You have to have the voice that is acceptable to the audience, have an ability to describe something and to bring a level of flow to what is going on at the time. A good commentator knows when to speak and when not to and to leave it to the pictures to paint the story. You need to be prepared to put in a lot of time to research. Preparation is vital. It takes a while to get your eye trained to be able to identify what you’re looking for. Coming back to the sport every four years is a challenge but as it is a sport that really excites me it makes the work, research and study easy.


What advice do you have for somebody looking to get into broadcasting/commentating?

Be the best that you can be and go at it with determination. You need to be prepared to knock on every door possible. Put together samples of your work and get them in front of the decision makers and try to build your profile. Keep pushing and don’t take no for an answer. It takes a significant amount of determination and practice – like anything you wish to succeed in.

A qualification in journalism can help get a foothold but it will come down to your ability to broadcast. If I was starting now I would start as a sports editor and work my way up from there


When not involved in broadcasting Jerry works as a trainer, presenter and coach. His company First HRD run a very successful program called “Inside Out” training, details on . You can contact Jerry at [email protected].

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