Bob Ballard: “There should be a Tom Daley in every single sport for people to look up to.”

Bob Ballard’s voice is one that will be familiar to many. In his work as a commentator he has called the action at multiple Olympic Games (summer and winter), Commonwealth Games and world championships, and described several historic occasions.

Possibly best known for his work poolside covering swimming and diving, Ballard has also commentated on ice hockey – one of his first sporting loves – and basketball among others and worked at BBC Radio 5 Live for years.

Throughout that time, it has never really been a secret that he is a gay man, but in his own words he is not a “campaigning gay”. That is, he is quite happy when people find out, but he has absolutely no intention of making it his primary identity and the first thing he brings up when talking to someone.

Even then, he has found that being gay was not always beneficial to his career, and where some may be left guessing that being LGBTQIA+ is the reason behind professional disappointments Ballard was told just that in no uncertain terms.

“It’s very interesting that I encountered, certainly at the BBC, a lot of negative things when people found out I was gay,” Ballard recalled.

“I was told by a high-ranking person who went on to be the network controller of 5 Live that it didn’t work to my benefit. These days at the BBC he probably wouldn’t get away with saying that, but he was honest enough to tell me in an appraisal that my sexuality probably didn’t benefit me when it came to career progression at that time.

“It wasn’t that I was hiding it from anybody, but people found out. It’s obviously a small industry, so people find this stuff out, but I was told quite starkly and straightforwardly that it wasn’t really advantageous towards my career progression.

“I worked for the BBC in a freelancing capacity from 1983, but I started at 5 Live in 1997. I was there for 14 years, but it was towards the back end of that in London when this kind of thing cropped up. I was told by somebody who was actually very supportive to be fair that unfortunately, because of the way this business works and the way BBC Sport worked at the time, it wasn’t particularly advantageous to be gay in the sports fraternity.

“I pretty much thought that would be the case. As we know, out sports broadcasters are about as rare as out sports personalities.

“There’s always this slight dichotomy I think. Clare Balding was very well accepted when she came out, and there’s a definite difference between people coming out who are female, and people coming out who are male, and I’ve never really understood why that would be the case.

Despite being told that being gay wasn’t helping his chances of progressing, Ballard has had a career most broadcasters would envy.

“People would say ‘oh Clare Balding, isn’t it great’, but with males within the industry it’s almost viewed in a completely different way. I’ve never quite worked out why, there’s almost a cache with being a lesbian in sport that doesn’t work the other way for male people involved in sport or broadcasting who might be homosexual.”

While athletes often talk about playing better in their sport after coming out, when the weight of what they are carrying with them is no longer heavy on their shoulders, Ballard has always been able to separate personal from professional – although that is sometimes to the bemusement of his friends.

“Obviously I know people within sport who are gay,” he reasoned.

“I separate the two things. A lot of gay friends of mine say that they don’t know how I commentate on diving, because all they would be thinking about are the guys in speedos. I’ve got to say that the professional side of me never looked at that.

“Being absolutely honest, in all the time I covered diving there were probably about two or three, certainly less than a handful of divers that I’ve actually really fancied. It’s not about ‘oh look at him in his speedos’, but friends of mine say they don’t know how I commentate on that and they couldn’t do it.

“I’m doing a job. I’m not doing a Miss World contest, I’m doing a sporting event, so my sporting head takes over. Even if I thought that one of the divers was quite good looking, that wouldn’t be the first thing in my head. It would be ‘is that person a good athlete? Is that person going to win a medal? Is that person going to make a final?’

“Some people might think that’s a strange way of looking at it, but my professional head tells me that’s the priority. Any periphery stuff gets pushed way down the line, and I worked on the basis of my introduction to people not being ‘I’m Bob Ballard, I’m gay’. It was never like that.

“It has never been a real burden to me. I came out quite late really in the 80s, and I actually came out to an ice hockey player who I also knew was gay.

“That’s the weird thing about it, I knew that he was openly gay, and we just had a conversation where I think I said something like ‘would it surprise you to know that I’m gay?’ He said ‘no, not at all’, and that was it. I came out to a sportsperson really, even though I had kind of hidden it for quite a long time.

“He helped me a great deal in that respect, telling me to be myself. If people didn’t like it, that’s tough luck. He was very braced about it, more braced that I would have been, and he told me to just disregard these people.

“They’re not important to me, because it’s my life I’m leading and I should live it my way. That was quite instructive because I had spent years and years thinking shouldn’t I, should I? I had spent years with everything being very tentative, taking mini steps, and what he taught me was that I’ve got my own life to lead. It’s how I am, it’s how I’m always going to be, so enjoy it.”

Ballard, pictured here with Jack Laugher, regularly commentates on diving at the major events.

Through his work in diving, Ballard has followed the career of Tom Daley closely up to and including the most recent Olympic Games in Tokyo earlier this year.

There, Daley gave an impassioned answer in an interview after winning his first Olympic gold medal about how much it meant to his as a gay athlete, but as far as Ballard is concerned Daley has been making a difference for LGBTQIA+ athletes long before 2021.

“I think Tom set the tone for other people to be honest,” Ballard insisted.

“Having someone as high profile as Tom was really changed the course of events. You had a successful athlete and a very charismatic one who verbalised what he wanted to say in a really articulate way. I think that was a really key thing, and I think that has been the catalyst for what has come subsequently in Rio and Tokyo, and the Winter Olympics in between.

“I think he has essentially, far more than people think, been the major catalyst for people coming out. A lot of people owe a debt of gratitude to Tom for the way he did it and what has happened subsequently.

“I had a conversation with him a couple of years ago about how he got followed around by camera crews in Russia. It bordered on freak show, which I know he found difficult to deal with. Literally every time he turned around there was someone pointing a camera at his face. He takes it on board, because the wider good is kind of why he’s doing it.

“You need somebody with credibility. While it’s great to see athletes coming out all over the world, sometimes you don’t know who they are without Googling them.

“Tom has got a massive profile in China, he’s revered in that country, so he’s got a worldwide following. Pretty much everybody knows who he is, so that opens up so many doors having somebody of that profile.

“It’s fantastic, a baseball player came out last week, that’s brilliant. I had to look him up because I didn’t know much about him, but it’s fantastic.

“We’re still waiting for a major tennis player to come out, and I think we seem to forget that. There have been plenty on the female side, but there is no out tennis player in the men’s top 100 right now. Just like in football, there has to be one.

“There are 2000+ professional footballers in this country, are you telling me that not even 5% of footballers are gay or bisexual? There has to be. We know that’s the case, but we keep thinking it’s going to happen and it doesn’t.

There are still some sports without a prominent out athlete.

“In other, more macho sports like Rugby League or Rugby Union – if they can be out in those big machismo sports, why can’t it happen in football? That’s the age old question that we won’t ever get answers to until someone comes out, and in the modern era there is no sign of that happening.”

“Hopefully there will be a lot more Tom Daleys in the future. I think he, like people in other industries like entertainment who have opened the door for other people, has been that major benefactor for other people in sport.”

While Daley continues to make an impact on the biggest stage possible globally, Ballard has also been involved in landmark moment for the LGBTQIA+ community in sport at a more grassroots level this year.

He was invited to commentate on the historic cricket match between the Birmingham Unicorns and Graces, as well as taking up his usual role as co-host of the RVT Sports Day.

In both cases there was a joyous atmosphere, and while the importance of both cannot be understated, one of the big takeaways for Ballard was just how fun they are to be involved in.

“I’ve been part of Graces as honorary chairman for quite some time, but I never thought we would have a match of that nature,” he enthused.

“It was one of the most pleasurable things I’ve ever worked on, because there was no pressure, it was a bit of fun, everybody enjoyed the day and the unification of two gay cricket teams was something I never thought I would see.

“To be there on an absolutely glorious sunny day, people just enjoyed it for what it was. The amount of people who came along to watch too, it was a terrific thing. I went away, not on cloud nine, but certainly feeling like that was a major step forward.

“It’s going to be an annual event, and it will never be quite as special as the first one was but it’s a major seas change from where we were.

“These are all incremental steps. People might say ‘so what?’ but you have to review where we were 20 years ago compared to where we are now, all the improvements and statements that have been made in that time, we’re in a completely different place now compared to where we were at the turn of the century.

Doing events like the historic match between the Birmingham Unicorns and Graces and the RVT Sports Day alongside Nick Heath fills Ballard with joy.

“I’ve got to say that I had no idea when I first got involved with the Sports Day exactly how much fun it was going to be.

“A lot of people take it incredibly seriously, and watching people take it incredibly seriously makes me laugh. Every year it is ridiculously competitive, people will throw massive strops at it, the same as professional players in other sports, and I’m just sitting there thinking ‘I love this, it’s fantastic’.

“It’s such a great day, and fortunately the weather was good this year because it gets a great attendance. It always amazes me – when you start you’re looking around at a few thousand people, but by the time you finish it’s like a huge auditorium of people there.

“It’s another celebratory day, it’s fantastic. This year we had a boxing team in there, we had an actors’ team there, you have such a wide range of people and that’s what makes the day for me.

“It’s a massive bear-fest. I didn’t even realise that until this year, I was looking around and asked Nick if we normally have this amount of bears in, it was bear city that afternoon, and I don’t know why but I don’t usually associate bears with sport but it’s a day for everybody.

“It’s one of those days where even if you can’t throw a ball – or a handbag, which is one of the competitions we have – you have a go. Nobody is going to have a go at you for it, they’re going to be laughing in the right way. They might take the piss out of you sometimes, but they’re going to be involved and laughing with you and not at you.

“This year’s one was a bit hastily arranged because of Covid, we didn’t have quite the same number of teams as we would normally have, but hopefully we’ll have a bumper event next year.

“If you haven’t been to it, and I hadn’t until I hosted, you’ve got to go because it’s so much fun and everybody thoroughly enjoys it. It goes in no time at all, you get there as it starts and the next you know you’ve already been there for three or four hours. It doesn’t seem like it at all.”

Over the last few years, Ballard has also taken on a role as lecturer at UCFB, working in Wembley Stadium. After a shaky start where he admits to having doubts as to whether he was cut out for the role, Ballard is thoroughly enjoying getting to influence the next generation of sports reporters and broadcasters.

Inclusive reporting, crucially, is part of his curriculum, and he is confident having seen the ability of students coming through his course that the future of sports journalism is in good hands.

Ballard is now based at Wembley Stadium as a lecturer for UCFB.

Some of them have even found Ballard’s profile as a prominent gay sports broadcaster comforting – a far cry from what he was told in his days at the BBC.

“We touch on inclusive reporting with Funke Awoderu, who is the FA’s equalities officer – obviously we’re in Wembley Stadium, so she’s on the fourth floor and we teach on the third floor most of the time so she comes down and gives a speech,” Ballard said.

“We’ve talked about it, and we’ve talked about Rainbow Laces. We’ve got people to come up with ideas regarding Rainbow Laces, and Black Lives Matter which we’ll do more on this year, so it’s very much a part of what we do because it’s an integral part of the sports landscape as Sky Sports have shown.

“Sadly, our students are not really into radio which is my big thing, I’ve done radio for most of my life. Things move on, they’re into podcasts now. They’re into more structured things with television, so I couldn’t teach now like I could have 20 years ago. I have to be across that, I have to learn about Tik Tok and Twitch, all of these things.

“It’s evolving, but there’s still a massive appetite from our students to be involved in media. We’ve had some very good students, people who were quite green coming in here for first year and we’ve seen a massive improvement in them and what they’re able to do and achieve in the space of a few months.

“The media is in very good hands, because we’re producing people who are industry-ready. Literally the day they walk out of here they are set up to walk into the business. I’ve been really impressed with the students we have here and I’m sure that’s replicated around the countries at other universities and colleges.

“I’ve seen a seismic change in some people from being not quite sure what they want to blossoming by the time they get to year three into well-rounded, fully-formed broadcasters or journalists ready to go out and do their piece.

“It’s interesting, because in my first year here one of my students was openly gay and it was easier for him to converse with me about certain things. He felt more comfortable, and we also had a couple of lesbians as well who again felt an affinity with me and could come and talk to me about stuff that they may not have with other people.

“That’s great. I don’t particularly see myself as a role model, I don’t think I’ve done enough to achieve that because I’m not a particularly campaigning gay person. I’m not afraid to say that I am, and I’m certainly not ashamed of being gay at all, so if it helps other people then that’s fantastic.

“I would like to see more people coming out in sport, I think it’s important. Some will say that when we have so many people out in different sports, what’s important about it? The more the merrier, because they are all role models.

“The equivalent of a 16 or 17-year-old Bob Ballard would be saying there’s that person, I can relate to them or even be them. For all these people asking what it matters what somebody’s sexuality is, these are people who have never been involved in that and can never understand why it’s so important.

“I’m not saying we should make a catalogue out of people, but for me every sport should have role models for people. There should be a Tom Daley in every single sport for people to look up to.”

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