One of the staples of my childhood television viewing was the British/European version of the multi-sports competition "Superstars". Just recently I have been revisiting the history and the essence of this programme, and I was reminded what an entertaining, worthwhile and intriguing show it was.
I have vague and misty memories of watching the likes of David Hemery and John Conteh appear on "Superstars" when I was very young, and of course the Kevin Keegan cycling incident from 1976 is almost etched into the collective consciousness of the British nation.
The BBC's "Superstars" coverage was presented by David Vine and Ron Pickering, two of the most capable and likeable sports broadcasters of that era. Vine was authoritative, urbane even, and could paint great pictures with words. Ron Pickering, on the other hand, was enthusiasm personified, and his passion for sport and its benefits always shone through in his contributions.
For the uninitiated, "Superstars" pitted competitors from various different sports against each other in a succession of events, including sprinting, cycling, canoeing, weightlifting and the famous (or infamous) gym tests. Points were awarded according to the positions attained in each event. National series thrived in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, and European, International and World championships took place.
As a boy, the European superstars finals held a particular mystique and pull and, funny though it seems now, a taste of the exotic. Vine and Pickering were very adept at conveying the atmosphere in Rotterdam's Ahoy Stadium, where the European showpiece was stage. Special emphasis was placed on the banked cycling track there. Impressionable as I was, I almost gained the perception that "Superstars" was the most important and prestigious sporting event in the world, perhaps even surpassing the Olympics!
It has become a cliche, but a large part of the charm and appeal of "Superstars" was its propensity to propel comparatively little-known sportspeople into the spotlight, allowing them to exhibit their talents to a wider audience, way beyond the confines of their chosen speciality. Classic examples of this were Kjell Isaksson, the Swedish pole vaulter, Ties Kruize, the Dutch field hockey player, and the British judoka Brian Jacks. These men regularly outshone more famous and renowned athletes in this test of all-round sporting prowess.
I vividly remember the performances of Isaksson, the remarkable little pole vaulter. His feats in weightlifting were staggering from some one of his slight build. He was also formidable in the gym tests (parallel bar drips and squat thrusts).
Of course, Brian Jacks became a national celebrity in Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and appeared to receive far more recognition for his "Superstars" achievements than he did for his accomplishments in the world of judo, which were themselves considerable. Jacks' counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic was the remarkable Canadian soccer player Brian Budd, who notched up three World Superstars titles, not to mention three Canadian titles! Budd was a formidable competitor in most of the events on the schedule, and he was also quite a character.
Another hallmark of the UK version of the show was in allowing older athletes such as Hemery, Lynn Davies and John Sherwood to prolong or extend their careers in the competitive arena. Many who grew up with "Superstars" possibly knew little of their respective careers and feats in track and field athletics.
It is interesting to analyze which sports appeared best suited to supplying successful "Superstars" participants. Pole vaulting provided Bob Seagren, Kjell Isaksson, as well as Brian Hooper, who shone at the tail end of the franchise's golden age in Britain.
What made pole vaulters so ideally suited to the challenge of "Superstars" and its format? I guess it had something to do with agility, "pound-for-pound" strength, speed, all-round athleticism and technical aptitude. This ensured that they were consistently good across most of the disciplines contained in the schedule.
Amongst football (soccer) players, the aforementioned Brian Budd was perhaps the exception which proved the rule. Generally, practitioners of "the beautiful game" seemed to lack the power and the strength to compete for outright honours, although they fared very well in areas such as sprinting - Malcolm McDonald famously broke the eleven-second barrier in the 100 metres in 1975. The extra power and muscle of rugby players (from both codes) appeared to make them more suited to the rigours and the nature of the "Superstars" test.
Were there any flaws in the make-up of the "Superstars" event? To me, the UK version seems to have placed undue emphasis on strength and brawn. More skill-orientated sports, such as racquet games or even something like ten-pin bowling or snooker, might have counter-balanced things in favour of those possessing finesse as well as muscle.
The rules barring or handicapping some competitors in their alleged "specialities" also seemed nonsensical and anomalously applied. Handicapping pole vaulters in sprints and 400-metre hurdlers in a steeplechase? It made matters unnecessarily complicated and I think that a "swings and roundabouts" argument could be justifiably made here.
Allowing people to "opt out" of some events was also wrong in my opinion. I would have just required everyone to take part in every event. This was supposed to be a test of all-round proficiency, after all. Brian Jacks in the sprints and steeplechase would have been very interesting to watch!
But these are very minor gripes. To me "Superstars" in its prime was emblematic of its time, when the innocence of the era allowed such an enterprise to thrive. A great series!