If you think broadcasting the Olympics is tough, try the SEA Games
Remesh giving a tour of the international broadcast centre during the 2015 SEA Games to SNOC President Tan Chuan-Jin. Here Mr Tan learned that live commentary of the competition took place in these cubicles instead at the sports venues.
By Ignatius Koh and Justin Kor
For more than three decades, Remesh Kumar was sent across the world to cover major sporting events. He was the man responsible for what Singaporeans see on television, from the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982, to the more recent Rio Olympics in 2016.
The broadcasting veteran did not flinch during large-scale global events, and even thrived “on the rush” from these huge coverages, he said.
“I think once you have done a big live show, the adrenaline gave you a different feeling,” he enthused.
But closer to home, a more daunting task usually awaited: The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. It was a tougher challenge than the Asian Games or the Olympics, said the media veteran.
While broadcasters usually have a month to plan for bigger sporting events as they typically release their schedules three to four months ahead, the SEA Games threw up a lot of uncertainty.
“It’s quite scary – you’ll be quite lucky to create a programme schedule days ahead. Even then, there will probably be changes,” said the former Mediacorp Senior Vice President of English Entertainment Productions.
He recalled a particularly vexing incident that affected the swimming events at the regional tournament in the early 2000s. The first race had been due to start at 6pm, but up to 30 swimmers were still warming up at 5.55pm, which led to a delayed broadcast.
“I asked why that was happening, because we had to go on air showing an empty pool. In the end, my commentator had to apologise to everybody watching,” he added.
A few years later, a 400m dash caused some consternation when the stadium went dark due to a blackout. The crew had to lug their cameras to a better lit area to catch the remaining action.
Despite the surprises, Remesh reserved praise for the 2003 Hanoi SEA Games. In particular, he was impressed with Vietnam’s widespread coverage over 20 venues, which was above the average of 14 to 15 usually shown during the biennial tournament.
The art of broadcasting
Having covered more than 30 major Games, the sprightly 63-year-old has come to regard broadcasting as “an art”. Apart from finding the right concoction of Team Singapore events, he also had to plan for unforeseen circumstances.
Contingency plans were regularly required for sports such as tennis, volleyball and badminton, where matches could be as short as 30 minutes or drag up to a few hours.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he and his crew had to scramble to plug a gap when a women’s table tennis match ended far earlier. “The game finished in 21 minutes but we scheduled it for one-and-a-half hours, thinking it will be a hot firefight.”
At times, emergencies behind the scenes gave him even more challenges. During the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, veteran sports presenter John Burgess was hit with a bad case of food poisoning and vomited through the night.
The next morning, he emerged from his room “looking like death”, said Remesh, who retired in 2017. “I remember he was scheduled to do a commentary at 10 or 11, but I had to roll a commercial break so that he could rush to the toilet to throw up. That was extreme, he almost died.”
But with the support of 20 to 25 camera crew members, which included producers, editors and cameramen, he weathered many crises and thrived on bringing the action to audiences back home.
All boxed up
Remesh and his team are usually holed up in a room for 10 to 14 days during major sporting events, and 15-hour days are normal.
“We go into a room with no windows and never come out for two weeks because once you’re on air, you have to watch every second,” he said.
The jail-like atmosphere was made worse by the tiny room which he shared with 20 others and cumbersome recording equipment.
“In the first 10 to 15 years, we used to travel with 500 tapes and 15 tape recorders the size of a table,” he said.
However, Singapore rode the technological wave early and edged ahead of their regional counterparts during the mid-2000s.
Swapping tapes and recorders for hard disks and routers gave Remesh and his team a much needed breathing space in the media room. Their equipment upgrades also did not go unnoticed during the SEA Games.
He mentioned proudly: “The Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian broadcasters were coming into our room and asking, ‘how are you all doing this?’”
It was routine for broadcasters to mingle like this in the media centre, mirroring the camaraderie shown by the athletes at the “Friendly Games” – the unofficial name for the regional competition.
“After we hosted in 2015, the Malaysians told us they were impressed with our production and wanted to emulate that standard when their turn comes in two years,” added Remesh.
But the best reward for an exhausted sports producer was hearing the national anthem in another country, he said. “Sports requires a lot of planning but having listened to Majulah Singapura all over the world, it makes me proud to show that moment to Singaporeans.”