Broadcaster Clare Balding talks fitness, dogs, and rewatching London 2012 in lockdown, with Luke Rix-Standing.
If you have owned a TV set at any point over the last two decades, you’ll probably know that Clare Balding is usually seen rushing between sports events, interviewing superstars, and mingling in grandstands filled with fans.
Now ensconced in her London home with Tibetan terrier Archie, her TV work has been decimated by the virus, but a rapidly approaching book deadline has kept her busy, if not entirely fulfilled.
“I really miss the adrenaline rush of live events,” she says. “Writing is such a different skill, as you’re crafting and drafting and trying to perfect something. Television doesn’t give you time for that, and you’ve got to react instantly with the right questions and the right tone.”
Various extras have helped her fill some of the gaps – a virtual quiz show here, a book review programme there – and Balding returned to our screens recently as part of an ad campaign for BT, helping the public stay connected by teaching them how to use WhatsApp.
Summer 2020 was set to be a sporting bonanza, with Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, and Paralympics ranking among the presenting gigs wiped from Balding’s calendar. “I’m trying not to look too far ahead,” she says, “and not worry about the things that are no longer in the diary. I’m trying to assume that other things will happen, that other adventures will occur.”
She may be missing out on Tokyo, but Balding’s career highlight is and likely always will be, London 2012. “I’m looking forward to watching it back,” she says, “as there’s a lot I didn’t see. On Super Saturday I was dashing between open water swimming and showjumping, and I want to rewatch the opening ceremony. How prescient it was of Danny Boyle to celebrate the NHS.”
For professional athletes, coronavirus has been a disaster, but a disaster with a few green shoots. “I recently did something with Freddie Flintoff, Tim Henman, and David Haye, among others,” says Balding, “and they all said how much they were enjoying being at home with their families. It helps when you have a big house and garden, but normally, they spend all their lives on tour.”
In the sporting rat race time off can be a career risk – your ranking can slide or a teammate can take your place, but lockdown means no one is left looking over their shoulder. “Everything is on pause,” says Balding, “and that’s never happened to any of us.”
Balding is trying to embrace the break too, and find reasons to be cheerful amidst the gloom. A former jockey, Balding normally spends more time talking about sport than doing it, so she is now blasting through the ‘couch to 5k’ programme in between Pilates and Joe Wicks videos.
“I wrote a column this week about wanting to come out of lockdown fitter not fatter,” says Balding, “which isn’t easy, but I’m learning that if you set a proper timetable for yourself, you can achieve an awful lot. It’s about making sure you have segments of time in which you know exactly what you’re doing.”
“Set yourself little targets – they don’t have to be major – and then give yourself permission to just do something fun. I’m absolutely addicted to [ITV game show] The Chase – if I write 1,000 words, it’s my reward.”
Staying active has been key, she says, alongside a healthy dose of animal magnetism. “I do a podcast called Dogcast,” she says, “and I know from the correspondences how much pets are making a difference for people.”
“Poor old Archie is pretty old now, so he can’t come on long walks, but we have a cat too and they’re great company. You get to know people quite well through their dogs, and there’s this sweet puppy up the road that I’m just desperate to cuddle. That’s what it’s come to.”
Balding describes herself as a very positive person, and although the puppy still eludes her, she speaks glowingly of a newfound sense of community among her neighbours. “I love my desk,” she says, “because I can look out at the road and see families walking and cycling together. It’s really lovely, and there are aspects I hope we maintain when freedom of movement returns.”
In front of the cameras, Balding rarely gets time to stop and think, and pressing pause has given her the chance to reflect. “Normally we’re spinning so fast – and I absolutely hold my hand up here – that we’re straight onto the next thing without a moment’s rest, and that isn’t altogether healthy.
“If we emerge with a more flexible working structure, I think that’ll benefit a lot of women in particular, if we develop better technology for health online, that could reduce stress on patients and the spread of disease, and obviously there’s the benefit to the environment.”
In the national narrative, Balding is very aware that she is one of the lucky ones, and that not everyone will have room for silver linings. “I don’t have young children to try and homeschool,” she says, “and I’m very used to working from home.”
“This morning I heard a lady on the phone to her mum in floods of tears, pushing a pram with a small child in it, saying, ‘Mum, what am I going to do, the business is going down the pan.’ For some, this is life-alteringly awful, for others it is a phase through which they shall pass. If you’re the latter, you have to be so grateful, and look out for those needing support.”
It was not so long ago that Balding herself was staring down the barrel of illness, having survived thyroid cancer in 2009. “It made me more determined to enjoy what I do,” she recalls. “I think with any major illness, you feel very lucky to come through it, and then treasure everything afterwards a little bit more.”
When things do return to normal, Balding hopes the sporting schedule will still be there waiting, but she’ll also thank heaven for small mercies. “The simplest things make all the difference,” she says, “just sitting down for a Sunday dinner someone else cooked would be nice.”