Steve Armitage turned races into art form
'Like coming off a freeway at full speed to an exit with only one lane'
Amidst all the noise out there, I’m missing his voice.
That and I admit to be being more than a little bit nervous about calling the play-by-play for short track speed skating as I will attempt to do for the first time in my career this weekend at the World Cup in Montreal.
I mean, no one other than the “Big Guy” has ventured into this territory at our network since short track’s Olympic debut in Albertville, France in 1992.
Steve Armitage is a genius when it comes to delivering the spontaneous and immediate description of these kinds of sports.
He’s been mastering it dating back to the 1972 Olympics in Munich for goodness sake.
He’s made calling a race into an art form.
So why not phone him? Maybe I’ll get some pointers from a guru who knows more about this kind of thing than anyone in the business.
I go back to my first network sports assignment at the 1987 Canada Games in Cape Breton. “Army,” as we’ve always nicknamed him, was the host of the show. I was a rookie presenting longform reports on alpine and cross-country skiing. That is until we had to edit a 16-minute piece on the fly and voice it live to air.
No time to pre-package.
My television moment of truth had arrived.
They hustled me into the studio and I threw on one of those bright, salmon-coloured CBC Sports blazers that a senior colleague had loaned me. They sat me next to Steve Armitage (a God of sports broadcasting in my estimation) and he looked me sternly in the eye while gently relieving me of my voluminous and insanely jumbled notes.
“Put these right here between us,” he growled, not unkindly. “If you screw it up, I’ll take over. You’ll be OK.”
With that the red light went on and I sweated my way through my first live play-by-play, not perfectly by any means, but without “Army” feeling compelled to interject. He had effectively held my hand and gotten me through.
I’ll always remember his immense generosity at my time of need.
“Never, ever, retire,” booms the voice at the other end of the line. “You can only rake so many leaves. I knew once the golf course closed that I was doomed.”
My guess is that “Army” is missing calling the races too.
He chuckles knowingly when I ask him about short track speed skating. “It’s not the easiest event to call because it’s so damn quick,” he offers in a professorial way. “The bottom line is that it’s a race and you treat it as such.”
Armitage, you see, does not take this sort of thing lightly. Through the hundreds of thousands of races he’s described over the course of his journey behind the microphone he’s developed a formula for creating imagery and magic moments.
“It’s like waiting for the skater’s waltz and then it just unfolds,” he reminisces about the 1,500-metre short track event.
“I liken it to coming off a freeway at full speed to an exit that has only one lane. You gotta be there first,” he says, describing the first turn of the 500m sprint.
“Each race has its own cast of characters. You try to build the story of the race based on the characters,” he stresses.
“Don’t be afraid to commit because there’s nothing worse than holding back,” he warns. “This sport is not measured it’s off the rails. Let the energy and excitement come through and don’t be too measured.”
Kristina Groves won four medals in Olympic speed skating and reckons that alongside “Army” she called something like 350 races on both the short and long track at the last Winter Games in Sochi.
“Of course his famous line at the end of a race, ‘Driving to the line!’ is a classic,” she says.
“His preparation is absolutely meticulous and incredibly thorough and his notes are legendary. But he is fantastically good at managing the timing and delivery of everything he says. Steve is a master at reflecting a race through the tone and volume of his voice.”
‘Races mean something to him’
Swimmer Byron Macdonald starred for Canada at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and competed against superstar American Mark Spitz who won seven gold medals at those Games. He’s worked as an aquatics analyst in tandem with Armitage since 1990, a period encompassing four Olympics and seven Commonwealth Games.
By his own estimation he’s witnessed several thousand races as Armitage’s ally in the broadcast booth.
One thing stands out above everything else.
“His passion for the sport,” Macdonald doesn’t hesitate. “He truly appreciates the sport he is covering. And because of that he comes at it with knowledge. I think the viewer can pick that up. The races mean something to him.”
Our discussion of speed skating is rollicking and lasts for several minutes. “Army” is getting all fired up just imagining the scenarios in store at the Maurice Richard Arena this weekend.
“Just call what you see,” he says.
“It’s pure racing and it’s so simple. First across the finish line wins. Let it go and get into it. Have fun!”
Thank you “Army”.
Now if you could just manage to be there to hold my hand and turn it into art like only you can.