Swimming – “The Impact of Radio and Television”

“Broadcasting” was born in the 1920s, under the control of the British Broadcasting Corporation (B.B.C.) and its popularity quickly spread and in 1922 there were 35,744 wireless licences issued; by 1926 the figure had grown to 2,178,259 and by 1939 to 9,082,666.
Where earlier entertainment had aimed at peak audiences of thousands, the wireless captured millions and because it could reach into every home, it was seminal in creating whole new areas of popular ”taste” and interest.
Sport was one of the principal beneficiaries and broadcasts of races at Scottish swimming Galas began in 1946, in the B.B.C.’s “Out of Door” programme and in 1948 it was broadcasting “more events in our sport than over before.” The radio provided a boost to Gala attendances and it gave widespread publicity to the feats of Cathie Gibson, Peter Heady, Jack Wardrop, Margaret Girvan, Eleanor Gordon, etc., and stimulated many to go along to watch.

It also provided a small, but welcome source of income as the Association “sanctioned” any Gala broadcast and received the Fee. The Corporation started to televise Galas in 1952 and within a few years they were commonplace and the Scottish Championships, Junior and Senior Inter-District Championships, the Bologna Trophy Contest and the Tenovus Trophy Competition (v Wales and Ireland) were usually screened.

Television proved to be a two-edged sword as there were notable benefits, but in other ways the sport suffered. Televising events led to a reduction in spectator attendances at both National and District level: apart from the obvious losses in income, particularly to individual clubs, the “atmosphere” at Galas changed for the worst. Television also influenced the allocation of Galas and on several occasions the Association was required to change the venues of competitions.
Many swimming pools were unsuitable for cameras and so they were not allocated particular Galas and some areas were badly hit.

In 1958 the S.A.S.A. Championships were due to be held in the Midland District, but the B.B.C. was unable to broadcast from any of its pools and so the North and Western Districts were invited to submit offers. Twelve months later the B.B.C. arranged to broadcast an Inter-City Aberdeen v York contest, but owing to technical problems in Aberdeen, it was held in the Western District. Television also caused disruptions to the Annual Swimming Calendar and on several occasions the B.B.C. requested the Association to make last minute changes to the date of a Gala to fit in with the televising of other sporting events.
This annoyed administrators, inconvenienced officials and frustrated swimmers. The timing of Gala programmes was also affected and swimmers were often asked to strip for a race, only to be left waiting while transmission link-ups were made. On this issue Bobby McGregor, world 110 yards freestyle record holder, had particularly strong feelings. He wrote:

“Most swimmers understand that delays can happen in the timings of a live transmission, but they feel that they should not be asked to strip for the race until the live link-up has been made.”

The disadvantages of television were numerous, yet on balance they were outweighed by the benefits. Perhaps most significantly, it provided the Association with considerable amounts of income and during the 1950s, the Association negotiated several three yearly contracts with the Corporation. In 1955 the television fee of £414 was 40% of the Association’s annual income and in 1959 the £535 fee was 33% of total income. The money was used to send swimmers of International standard to contests, both at home and abroad and since Scotland produced so many good swimmers in the 1950s, it was a particularly welcome contribution.
As James Williamson, the S.A.S.A. Treasurer, noted in 1959:

“It must be realised by all when taking into account the various commitments we have entered into, this could not have been visualised or contemplated by the more normal and ordinary income obtained in previous years prior to the
negotiations of the B.B.C. Having swimmers of international standard, it would have been disastrous if we, as an Association, could not have “paid our way” in playing our part in sending these swimmers to the various venues at home and abroad.”

Television fees were also used to keep down the Association’s Affiliation Fees.
In 1951 clubs paid an annual fee of £2. In 1956 it was reduced to 30s (£1.50), where it remained until 1969. Inevitably the presentation of competitive swimming as a form of popular entertainment made some swimmers into national sports personalities and Ian Black, the Robert Gordon’s schoolboy, was probably the first.
He will always be remembered for winning three Gold medals – two in one afternoon – at the 1958 European Championships in Budapest.
Bobby McGregor, the Falkirk Otter, also enjoyed the status usually reserved for footballers and cricketers. In his autobiography, he acknowledged that “I myself, possibly more than any other swimmer, benefited from the new-found affluence of and public popularity for the sport.”
Later, in another time and place, he was eclipsed by the country’s first swimming “superstar”, Warrender’s David Wilkie.