Clare Balding, the undisputed champion of Olympic broadcasting, has written a book about her childhood. Ahead of her appearance at Ilkley Literature Festival, she spoke to Tom Richmond about it.
Clare Balding is the first to baulk at the suggestion that she has become a ‘national treasure’ after becoming broadcasting’s undeniable gold medal winner at the Olympics and Paralympics.
“Oh my God. No,” she shrieks when it is put to her that she won over Britain with her easy-going nature in front of the camera and diligence that put more high-profile TV presenters – certainly many of those with higher salaries to shame.
“Gosh, no. I don’t think so. I’m just doing a job that I love. National treasure. Aren’t they people who’re very important? My sister-in-law for one says she is getting very bored of everyone talking about me and nothing else. They are aware, as I am, that it will not last.”
There’s another reason to Balding’s reticence, one which has only become public knowledge following publication of her acclaimed childhood memoir My Animals and Other Family.
The book charts her life growing up in one of Britain’s most racing dynasties, where childhood scrapes on horses would be interspersed with visits by the Queen when the future presenter was not always on her most immaculate behaviour.
She was suspended from her private boarding school for shoplifting – peer pressure was to blame – and the sense of shame still lives the sports presenter.
“School was difficult and I think school is difficult for a lot of people. If you do things you shouldn’t do, you need to learn from that. Although mine wasn’t perhaps extreme, I got caught and it is something that I am ashamed about. I think it is important to write about it.”
It was a challenging time, a rite of passage, that certainly could not have been foreseen when Clare Balding was growing up at the iconic Kingsclere Stables in deepest Berkshire where her father Ian was the Queen’s trainer.
Balding accepts that she grew up in a life of privilege but that she had to fend for herself. The trip to A&E was a frequent one. Her first pony, which she started riding as she learned to walk, was a Shetland called for Valkyrie who was a gift from the Queen after being outgrown by Princes Andrew and Edward.
“A sweet-natured old girl,” says Balding of Valkyrie before hastily pointing out that she has still to master the art of curtseying to Her Majesty. “Is it left leg behind right or the other way round?”
That was nothing to her humiliation when suspended from Downe House school in the leafy Home Counties for being part of a gang caught stealing tiny mechanical feet from a nearby shop. It was compounded when her mother Emma drove her daughter to the shop to pay for the stolen items and to apologise.
Yet what happened next was to have a lasting effect – she was banned, over the Christmas period, from riding her beloved horses. “It made one appreciate the importance and value of honesty. It is a lesson that I have never forgotten,” Balding said.
She went on to become head girl, a Cambridge University graduate and to make a name for herself in the male-dominated world of horse racing.
Riding was never a serious option – there was a less than successful stint assisting Three Day Event champion Lucinda Green before a rare victory in a Flat race at Beverley that is still remembered for her mount cutting up one Princess Anne who was not amused.
“I wanted to have an identity that was not linked to my surname, or to the achievements of my family. Perhaps that is why I was reluctant to embrace racing. I would be condemned to the title ‘Ian Balding’s daughter’.”
Jockeys like AP McCoy and Tom Scudamore say it is Balding’s lifelong understanding of horses – why the defeats will always outnumber the victories and the inevitable heartbreak along the way – that makes her such a perceptive and successful broadcaster.
It was certainly seen at Olympics and Paralympics. At the former, Balding was the BBC’s main swimming presenter – and appeared far more suited working alongside top pundits, like Australian superstar Ian Thorpe, than the uncomfortable Gary Lineker.
The work ethic had to kick in. “For the early morning heats, I had a very, very good researcher called Jonathan who deserves the credit,” she says.
“After them, I had four or five hours to do my homework for the evening. You learn how to do things on the hoof – and Ian was great, so thoughtful, so funny.”
Her favourite moment of the entire summer came after the men’s 200m butterfly. The unheralded Chad Le Clos from South Africa had just beaten his great hero, Michael Phelps, in the final stroke to land gold by 0.05 seconds – but the result still saw the great American become the most decorated Olympian in history.
The victor’s passionate father Bert was soon spotted by former swimmer Mark Foster, Balding’s pundit on the night in question, and was brought to the camera position for a hasty interview.
There was no chance to prepare for what was to become an unforgettable moment – Le Clos senior weeping tears of joy as he repeated “look at him, he’s beautiful” as cameras panned on his son receiving his gold medal.
“It was a hugely dramatic sporting moment,” says Balding by way of explanation. “And it changed my opinion of Michael Phelps. He had expected to win and lost his race. Yet he was so dignified, smiling in every photo and making sure nothing would deflect from Chad’s finest moment. I’ll never forget it. So classy, but why the Olympics matter.
“I could understand Bert more, I think, having grown up in a sporting family and understanding what is involved. Five hundredths of a second, that’s a short head in a Classic.”
Combining the Olympics and Paralympics, she says, was easy. She could have five days off and sleep in her own bed for the Olympics, and walk her Tibetan Terrier Archie, without having to catch long-haul planes to Sydney or Beijing.
As to the Olympic legacy, the subject still exercising Britain’s political elite, the response is succinct and to the point: “I thought the performance of women across the Games was a real highlight, and I think the media have a very important job in keeping up the momentum. “It is not about the even years when you have the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, it is making sure that the likes of Jess Ennis, Nicola Adams and Hannah Cockroft get the coverage that they deserve in the odd years when there tends to be a greater focus on football, cricket and so on.
“The rise in women sport has been incredible.”
Balding, 41, hopes this change in attitude will be as great as those witnessed in wider society and which allowed her to enter into a civil partnership with Alice Arnold, the Radio Four newsreader.
“I do think attitudes are changing, though. I love the fact that Alice and I get invited to everything together by name. Not just Clare plus One: always Clare and Alice,” she says.
“My parents adore Alice. My father even accepts that she is better than he is at golf.” Praise indeed.
As for the future, Clare Balding’s career is only gathering pace – just like the training career of her quietly modest but highly successful brother Andrew.
From New Year’s Day, she will be the face of racing on Channel Four after the BBC, the national broadcaster, chose to cut its remaining links to the sport of kings. She says she is already excited at the prospect of presenting coverage from York for the first time. “One of the most beautiful racecourses,” she adds.
Yet she will still appear on the BBC, rolling out a list of signature events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, the Boat Race and Wimbledon with Sir Peter O’Sullevan-like speed and precision.
Her one plea is for the RFL to take heed of the dates of her racing commitments so she can continue to present rugby league’s Challenge Cup, one of the events that Balding has made her own with her easy-going style.
Her reasoning typifies the presenter’s reputation as the consummate pro. I don’t want to just turn up for the Challenge Cup final, that would not be fair on whoever has to stand in for the earlier rounds,” she says by way of explanation.
“If I can’t do the quarter-finals, then I don’t see why I should do the semis and then the final. It’s not fair.”
Is there a sporting event that Clare Balding does not like? No, there is not. “If you are interested in people, then you are interested in all sport.”
* Clare Balding is a broadcaster and author of My Animals and Other Family, published by Penguin, price £20. She is due to speak at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 12.