Interview: Clare Balding

Article First published February 2011 20 June 2013

The award-winning BBC TV & Radio¬†broadcaster discusses her achievements, sexism in sport, and being described as a “dyke on a bike”

You come from a family that has always been involved in horses and racing. Was there ever a point when you didn’t want to go that way?

There was always a time when I didn’t want to go that way. I didn’t want to be my father’s daughter, and hopefully I’ve achieved that. It’s easier for me in a way going into rugby league or swimming or winter sports than into racing, because there are just too many people who knew me as a stroppy teenager! Having said that, there’s a lot of knowledge that’s just there because I grew up in that world, but it wasn’t an obvious choice to go into racing at all.

What’s your first memory with regards to horses?

There’s a picture of me when I’m eighteen months old sitting on Mill Reef, the Derby-winning horse that my father trained, The King George VI, The Eclipse, The Arc. He was a really big star, and I sat on him before he left the yard. I had a pony, and broke my collarbone at age two, so I was riding then, and falling off!

Have you taken more satisfaction from your racing achievements or your time at Cambridge or in journalism and broadcasting?

I was hugely pleased to get into Cambridge because it was a struggle; I didn’t just waltz in. I didn’t regard myself as an academic, as I’m not super-bright, but what Cambridge makes you realise is that it’s all a confidence trick. If you are confident, other people will be confident in you. You really can change the way people think simply by the way you present an idea. It’s not an act, because you’re being you, but it is a performance. It was at Cambridge that I first wondered what was different about John Major to me, and I decided nothing, except that he thought he could. Actually, I think there is something about working with horses, or with any animal that helps you with that confidence, because it’s not about being loud or talking all the time, but when you do talk, you have a way of putting things that makes people think you know what you’re doing.

Why did you choose to go to university rather than pursue a career in professional sports?

I was completely the wrong shape for race riding. I couldn’t do it without sweating for bloody weeks. I really struggled. At 21 or 22, it was time for a new phase of my life. I would have loved to have kept doing eventing, though, and I still now always think I can go back to horses.

When you were at university did you want to go into something other than sports journalism?

Yeah, I did. I did a lot of debating at the Union, and was at my most idealistic. I wanted to change the way people think. I don’t think for one second that I’ve achieved that. Sporting events certainly influence mass feeling, but only one that I think really changes the way we think is the Paralympics. I really do believe the Paralympics have the power to do that and they will have a huge influence in 2012.

Are there other ways you might have changed the way people think?

Probably the stance against A.A. Gill changed the way a lot of people think. As a woman in sport, to be honest I thought I came about ten years after everyone had changed the way they think, but even now the Andy Gray and Richard Keys debate shows that might not be true. I’m confident that they wouldn’t take that stance towards me, but I don’t care that it wasn’t about me; the issue with A.A. Gill wasn’t really about me either. I don’t want people saying any woman can’t do a job because they’re a woman, and I don’t want them saying “you’re a dyke” as if that influences your ability to do a job. I wonder if sport, instead of being seen as a positive thing for girls in school to do, has developed negative connotations of masculinity, perhaps due to an underlying homophobia. In our society, girls have serious issues with teenage pregnancy, obesity, and dropping out of education and falling into reliance on benefits. Now how could that be better than the risk that a few of them might be gay? It’s the elephant in the room, the fact that there is a high percentage of lesbians in sport and in the management of sport.

Do you think it was right that Andy Gray was sacked?

It’s not something I personally would like to comment on, but it’s an interesting debate. Obviously I’m not grateful, but the positive thing that has come out of it is recognition, like the recognition of homophobia that came out of the A.A. Gill debate. There is recognition that we live in a society where everyone should be judged on their merits. That is what we are striving towards, and I will do fight that fight, because I think it’s really important. It’s important on a gender basis. It’s important for sexuality. It’s important for disability. It’s important for every single person.

Do you think you have more credibility in your job having competed yourself?

Well, I was only an amateur. I think perhaps instead I’ve got credibility because I didn’t get the job on my looks, and because I have a way of doing things that is not gender specific. I think I was lucky in terms of timing; because there were female sports presenters already working, I wasn’t the code-breaker. I’d just read the code. In the beginning, I just got on with it, and then you suddenly realise that you’ve been doing it ten years, and then you have credibility because you’ve been doing it so long.

You started out in radio. Is that your favourite journalistic medium?

Radio is the one I feel most akin to. I think in radio, the way people who are fluent in French think in French. Writing scares me, and yet it is what I was trained to do, having done English at Cambridge. You don’t want to put something on paper that’s not good enough; it’s so permanent. Television is an odd one; I love live TV because it’s the most risky. It’s the one where you can make the biggest cock-up and it gets the most attention, so there’s a heightened sense of adrenaline, and I enjoy that. I don’t really care one way or the other about being in vision or being recognised. I hate it when I hear young people say, “I want to be famous.”

What’s your favourite sport to commentate on?

I love commentating on tennis and golf, which I do for the radio, and I love presenting three-day eventing because it was my favourite thing to do. I still love racing, any horse sports that have a beauty to them. I love winter sports, too. It’s hard to choose; the next event is always my favourite!

Which sportsperson do you admire most (apart from A. P. McCoy, who you said in another recent interview!)?

I’ll say swimmer Ian Thorpe. When I interviewed him, I could have talked to him for hours. I’ll admire him even more if he can come out of retirement; that would be a hell of a story. I also found working with female downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner very interesting. Skiing is a very asexual sport; you don’t get people saying that those women shouldn’t do the downhill, but it’s more dangerous than boxing! I admire anyone who can put in the training, feel the fear, overcome it, and actually be a nice person as well. Cricketer Andrew Strauss is another one I admire. He’s very solid.

Do you think racing has a worse reputation now than it used to because of the amount of media exposure there is around scandals?

There has been, and will always be, people looking to bend the rules, because that’s the easiest way to guarantee a result. For me, the beauty of sport is its unpredictability; a 100/1 shot can and does win now and again. I think in terms of transparency, racing has suffered for being vigilant; it has pulled out all the cheats. I hope that now people will know they can’t get away with it so won’t try.

You’re now doing a lot of programmes outside racing. How did that come about?

It was a necessity. I used to cover 65 days of racing a year; I now do 13. You’ve got to find something else to do. I cover a range of sports; neither swimming nor rugby league would have been natural ones for me so I was lucky with them. You do what you’re good at and you do what the market offers you – you’re still very much a victim of who’s got the rights. You also have to take chances. Famous and Fearless got a lot of stick but it was good training in terms of working with a live audience, and I’ll do other things that people wouldn’t expect of me. I’ll do something if think I’m going to learn from it.

The BBC is where you started out. How loyal do you feel to it?

You’re always very dependent on what you’re offered, so I don’t know. I feel slightly that if you cut me open you’ll see BBC right through me but that doesn’t mean that nothing can change. You have to evolve and go where you feel valued. Obviously I’m at the BBC until the end of 2012, but I’m free to do other projects and hope to work for people that want me in places I want to go.

Can you tell me about the projects you’re working on at the moment?

I’m excited about The History of Sport, which I’m doing for the radio. I think the series will be intellectually credible and interesting, and that a lot of people who think they don’t like sport or don’t like history will enjoy it. Then hopefully I’ll get my act together and write a book! Also, the Olympic projects will start soon so there’ll be lots of documentaries which I hope to get involved in.

Olivia Lee.

Photo Credit: Nick J Webb

Article First published February 2011