You may not know the name John Burgess, but if you, like almost every other Malaysian sports fan out there, watched the badminton game at the recent 2016 Rio Olympics, then chances are you probably heard his gravelly, almost grandfatherly voice accompanying the live telecast of the matches on Stadium Astro.
Burgess’ commentary was especially entertaining when Datuk Lee Chong Wei battled China’s Lin Dan in the semi-finals, as he interjected his usual detailed, well-informed commentary with phrases like “Malaysia boleh!” “Banyak bagus”, and descriptions of Lee as a “flying Pegasus”.
Burgess, who has been a freelance sports commentator since 1980, said covering that match, and the subsequent gold medal match, was the zenith of his career. “I absolutely adored covering the Olympic (badminton) finals. What a privilege that was. I was thrilled!” he recalled excitedly during a phone interview from London recently.
Having previously lived in Singapore in the 1970s-1980s, Burgess was well aware of just how important badminton is in Malaysia. “I was really hoping that he would bring home the gold, because I thought it was his time!” he shared.
“I’ve been in this for a long time, and used to do a lot of badminton (commentary). I even remember very, very clearly when Chong Wei started his career. He was an extraordinary player from day one.”
Burgess, who turned 70 while covering the Rio Olympics, said that his job as a commentator is to add more zest to what viewers see on screen. “I like to bring in colour and passion. I approach every commentary as if I’m adding a little extra to what people are watching. If I’m just repeating what they see, then there’s really no point, is there?” he explained.
Having a background as a teacher of sports has also helped him with his commentating career. “I used to teach many different sports as the Head Of Faculty at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore from 1972 to 1988, so I had a significantly wide perspective of many different sports,” said Burgess, who was the honorary Singapore national rugby coach from 1974 to 1976 and 1980 to 1982.
“Still, badminton is one of those sports where you can’t just come in and throw yourself at it without knowing anything. I’ve played at a reasonable level myself, so I knew what I was talking about.”
His broadcasting career began in 1981 when he was asked to talk about a rugby match involving the French national team in Singapore, and when that went well, he was given a chance to do more. His career goes back long enough for him to remember some of the region’s biggest stars, including Malaysian football legend Mokhtar Dahari.
Since then he has spoken on all sorts of sports, including volleyball, table tennis, rugby, netball, sepaktakraw, kabaddi, sailing, fencing, kayaking, football … his bio states that he has covered over 30 sports in the past 35 years!
“I’m quite a Jack of all trades! If I have any skills at all, it’s translating from one sport to another without too many problems. That being said, these days, the Internet has made things so much easier than it was 20 years ago when I had to carry books around with me!” he said with a laugh.
“A week ago, I was woken up at seven in the morning and asked to go to the studio and do wrestling! It turned out to be Greco-Roman wrestling, which I knew nothing about, so I went on to the Internet, watched a few videos, and within the hour I was in front of the mic covering it!”
According to him, the hardest thing about sports commentary is finding the balance between talking and not talking. “That’s quite difficult, adapting your style for different people in different countries for different sports. If I had done what I did for Malaysia in Britain, for example, it wouldn’t work because the British don’t like the constant talking. But if you go to Brazil they want wall-to-wall noise and sound!” he said.
Ultimately, the reason he has done this for so long is because of his passion for sports.
“I absolutely love what I do. Sport is so important in society, whether you’re a fan or participant. Take the Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei match – you never forget these kind of games, and for Chong Wei to beat him, what a wonderful sporting moment that was. It was a momentous event that thrilled an entire nation. How many times does that happen?”