At the recent Tour of California, a 23-year-old Latvian (pictured above) briefly lead the race after taking a solo victory on stage three. Before he won, his name was “Skoyens”; afterwards, he was referred to as “Skwinge”.
Apparently Eurosport’s commentators spoke to a couple of Toms Skujins’ countrymen after his victory to get the correct pronunciation, and Skwinge was the result. Latvia is hardly known for its sense of humour, but I suspect those two Latvians did their bit to change that.
There’s been a nasty outbreak of pronunciationitis recently. In the weird world of TV commentary, As-TA-na has transmogrified into ASS-ta-NAR, which is surely now cycling’s equivalent of Hyacinth Boo-KAY. The chap who was talking over the Giro d’Italia for Eurosport constantly referred to Eh-LEE-ya Viviani, as if we would have been scratching our heads if he stuck with broadcasting tradition and referred to riders by their surnames. And in the otherwise excellent Telegraph Cycling Podcast, the flow of conversation is briefly stymied whenever one of the presenters pulls the other up on how to say “Michal Kwiatkowski”. Meanwhile, to my untrained ears, it seems no one is that bothered about pronouncing Dutch or Flemish names correctly, even though Belgium and the Netherlands have had a far greater role in cycling culture than Latvia or Kazakhstan.
I think UK Cycling Expert offers a lesson here. There are two broad reasons why we chuckle when he refers to Zdenek Stybar as Zebedee Sidecar. The first is that there is something in the phonetic alchemy of those words that sound funny when they’re put together. The second is that we like getting names wrong. It’s a British tradition. In a similar way to the British First World War soldiers who mispronounced Ypres for their satirical magazine the Wipers Times, we like to make our own fun. So don’t tell us what we should be saying, even if you happen to be right.
I doubt whether pronouncing a rider’s name differently to how his mother says it would cause him offence anyway. And although broadcast professionals are well-meaning and probably correct, they’re fighting against the tide of time. Does anyone really think that our grandchildren, looking at the yellowed pages of a cycling magazine, would see the name emblazoned across a garish greeny-blue jersey and pronounce the first syllable in the same way that an American would say “arse”?
The obvious point here is that with so many languages involved in professional cycling it is impossible to pronounce all of them correctly. This being the case, my advice to any English-speaking broadcaster is to follow the Roy Walker rule: say what you see. Because aiming for authenticity is truly Skwingeworthy.