Words on Voices: From Horse Whisperer to Champion Jockey - How Mitch Fenner Became the Original Authority on Gymnastics Analysis
The first time that Mitch Fenner opened his mouth on live television, only one man heard him. His mellifluous voice, an impossible blend of husky yet silky smooth, went directly in to the headphones of whoever the BBC gymnastics commentator was. The veteran coach worked behind the scenes to drip-feed information that someone else would articulate. In the early 1980s, it was usually either Ron Pickering or Alan Weeks holding the microphone, and the viewer never knew the secret behind their startlingly accurate descriptions of routines. There’s a game you can play to test this out; listen back to the Beeb’s coverage from this time, and do your own Winnie the Pooh-like impression of Mitch Fenner describing the skill. You’ll probably find that the commentator begins to speak just as you finish.
The Days of the Horse Whisperer: The 1985 European Artistic Gymnastics Championships
That was how it was done until 1988, when a last-minute scheduling clash at the Seoul Olympics forced Pickering and Weeks away from gymnastics, and Barry Davies (more on him another day) stepped in. Father of a junior regional champion, Davies knew all too well about the drama of watching gymnastics. He also knew that if Mitch Fenner was good enough to talk to him, he was good enough to talk to everyone. And so, after years in the shadows, arguably the most influential co-commentator in the history of the sport finally had an audience.
Commentators sometimes talk too much; I know I do. Co-commentators tend to do this even more: in having to fit their words around someone else’s, the temptation can be to simply list skill after skill or to put their own personal story front and centre. Mitch Fenner never did this. When Mitch named skills, he told you how effectively they had been performed and gave you a narrative of the gymnast’s technique that was quite separate from the lead commentator’s biographical approach. He was authoritative but not judgemental, clearly telling the viewer what the judges might deduce whilst never suggesting that he would have done it better. All of this was supported by two of the most important tools that a commentator has – a superb voice and a terrific command of the language. Those attributes meant that Mitch was one of only a handful of co-commentators who could also lead a broadcast.
From Co-Commentator to Lead: The 2013 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships
Even when his own gymnasts – especially the Dutch men’s team – were performing, you couldn’t tell from listening to him that Mitch was their coach, so heavily did he value the impartiality that all commentators should embody. No broadcast team ever felt an absence more painfully than the BBC’s at Rio 2016, with Mitch having passed away just weeks before his Dutch team finally took to the floor at the Olympics.
As both a BBC analyst and the FIG’s main commentator for decades, Mitch Fenner trod the fair and honest path that so many have since tried to follow; telling the truth, but never kicking an individual when they were down. His words were frank, but framed with a kindness and respect for all gymnasts; it meant that, with Mitch at the helm, an athlete always left the competition floor with their dignity intact.