When a British tabloid found out that Canadian Garry Hill would be the stadium announcer for track and field events at the Olympics, there was hell to pay.
A Canadian accent? In London? At the marquee Olympic events? How dare they.
“A North American accent is going to sound very strange in a Stratford Olympic Stadium, especially when there are so many British commentators who could do the job,” the Daily Mail said.
So many others could do the job? Well, consider that Hill has been covering track and field for more than 40 years and he co-owns the sport’s most influential publication, Track and Field News. Furthermore, he has been handling stadium announcing duties at major track championships for 16 years in 17 countries and London will be his fourth Olympics.
He’s so revered as an announcer by track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, that the organization rushed out a press release in defence of Hill when the controversy over his accent surfaced in London.
During an interview at a hotel in London, Hill laughed off criticism about his accent and joked that the only thing that really matters is speaking clearly and not messing up names. “When people ask me what’s the clue to being a good announcer, I say enunciation, enunciation, enunciation,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what language you are speaking, if you are speaking in a garbled fashion.”
Olympic organizers leave it up to each sport to select announcers, and in London most are British. But track and field is unique. It’s by far the largest event at the Games, involving 47 sports and 2,000 athletes from just about every country on earth.
For announcers like Hill, the workload can be staggering. He has to be up to date on records, rules, athletes, top times, best distances and other milestones. He has to know every event from the hammer throw to the discus, javelin and marathon and make it all sound interesting. The duties are onerous enough that they will be split during the Games between Hill and Geoff Wightman of Britain (there are also two French announcers, since English and French are the official languages of the IOC).
The Olympic stage is a long way from his days growing up in Trail, B.C., where Hill was an aspiring triple jumper who had a knack for numbers. He was a good enough high school athlete to win a scholarship to Washington State University, where he studied public health. But his passion was numbers and stats, particularly in track, and his dream was getting a job at Track and Field News.
“There was no job on the planet that I wanted more than to be the statistician for Track and Field News,” he said.
Miraculously, a month before he graduated, the magazine posted a job for statistician. Hill flew to the head office in San Jose, Calif., was hired and never left. That was 1970. By 1973 he was managing editor, and 16 years later he helped buy the publication with a partner. Although he still lives in San Jose, Hill remains a Canadian and has never taken out U.S. citizenship (he’s also a long-time San Jose Sharks season ticket holder, his only winter sport interest).
His announcing job came almost by accident when he began filling in at local track meets and scored a gig as a track-side announcer at a San Jose venue called the Cow Palace. Soon he was announcing national championships and the IAAF took notice and asked him to handle the duties at major international meets.
Along the way Hill helped reinvent stadium announcing, moving away from static notices about the starting lineups and providing race commentary and a running dialogue about what was happening on the field. “The announcer is there first and foremost for the spectators,” he said, adding that athletes also appreciate a familiar voice. “If you are on the infield and if you are from Russia, you want to hear English. No matter country you are from, other than the host country, you want to hear English.”
Clearly his biggest challenge is names and getting them right. Chinese names are “brutal,” he offered, while Japanese are easy once you know the rules. The trickiest language for names? English.
“No language has fewer rules that can be followed,” he said. He recalled calling a college track meet years ago and announcing the name of one athlete, Laura Lavine, by pronouncing it “La Vine.” A teammate came up to the booth and corrected Hill, saying the pronunciation was “La Veen.” Then another woman came up and told Hill to go back to “La Vine.”
“I said, ‘No, no we talked to one of her teammates. It’s La Veen,’” Hill said. “And she said, ‘Well, talk to me, I’m her mother.’”
Hill said he has many fond memories from Olympics past, such as calling Carl Lewis’s fourth gold medal in Atlanta in 1996 and being in the booth when Usain Bolt smashed world records in Beijing. But asked for his most memorable Olympic moment, he doesn’t hesitate: “In terms of Olympic moments, there is nothing like the first heat, the first day at your first Olympics.”