20/04/2024
Dr Bridie O'Donnell with her commentary partners

Dr Bridie O'Donnell with her commentary partners Matt Keenan and Robbie McEwen. Credit: Twitter/Dr Bridie O'Donnell

Dr Bridie O'Donnell is one of the voices of the Tour de France in Australia, as part of the commentary team. Her journey explains why she's a great caller.

Dr Bridie  O’Donnell is a former pro-cyclist, a medical doctor, a board member of the Collingwood Football Club. This year, like last year, she will be returning to our living rooms, as one of the commentators for the Tour de France, which starts later today.

This year will be a little bit different for Dr O’Donnell. Last year, in the midst of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown, she was commentating from the Melbourne studio, while the rest of the team commentated for SBS’ Sydney studios.

She did that, while at the same time being the Officer for Women in Sport and Recreation for the Victorian Government.

This year, it will be a little bit easier she believes.

“I’m taking annual leave and travelling to Sydney,” Dr O’Donnell explained.

“I’ll be in the Sydney studio with Matt [Keenan] and Robbie [McEwen], and [Michael] Tomalaris. The whole team will be in one location, so it will be far more sociable, and it will be a lot easier for the producers.”

Dr O’Donnell is a former professional cyclist, who raced in Europe between 2010 and 2012. Before that, she was a champion rower and triathlete.

Dr O’Donnell’s crowning achievement as a cyclist was a successful tilt at the World Hour Record, where she rode 46.882km in the hour, eclipsing the previous record by 609 metres.

Dr O’Donnell explained that the final years of her cycling career prepared her for her commentary career, before she even realised.

“During my time as a professional cyclist living overseas, I had started ‘commentweeting’, which was something we needed to bring women’s cycling to the people,” she said.

“It wasn’t being covered by many networks at all, it was only the World Championships that were on TV, and they weren’t on until 2010.

“I would watch the Olympic Road Race and the World Championships and I would live-tweet the racing, which became a really popular way for people to get access to information.”

Dr O’Donnell, along with Matthew Keenan, and former champion Australian cyclist Robbie McEwen, have become the English speaking sound of the Tour.

Replacing award-winning stalwarts Phil Liggett and the late Paul Sherwen, who commentated the Tour de France for English speakers for 33 years, the trio has each brought their knowledge to the commentary team.

“I have a medical degree, and 20 years of medical experience, and I work in sports and events…Matt [Keenan] is an absolute encyclopaedia of knowledge, and nobody reads a sprint finish like Robbie McEwen,” Dr O’Donnell explained.

“So I think it’s a pretty great combination.”

O’Donnell brings her insight to the Tour de France coverage, but her insight stretches far beyond the living room. As a medical doctor, and a former professional athlete, she has a unique insight into high performance.

It’s one of the reasons that earlier this year, she was added to the board at Collingwood Football Club.

“What they were really seeking in me, and why they appointed me, was specifically that I came from another sporting background, and that I came from high performance and elite sport and had a knowledge of sports medicine, physiology and gender equality,” she explained.

Dr O’Donnell’s knowledge isn’t just shaping the football world. Last year, after Romain Bardet crashed, O’Donnell’s medical brain kicked into gear on commentary.

O’Donnell’s commentary of Bardet’s crash in Stage 13 of the Tour de France (approximately 28 seconds in)

Bardet looked clearly distressed, and was rushed back onto his bike, and back into the race, with all urgency to make sure he didn’t lose time.

After he crossed the line, Bardet was taken to hospital and was found to have a subdural haematoma. Bardet was safe and provided effective treatment, and the haematoma was not life-threatening.

Dr O’Donnell’s commentary, and the profile of Bardet brought new attention to the dangers of concussion for cycling.

Two days later, Sergio Higuita crashed, and it seemed that concussions were being handled very differently. Higuita was still rushed back onto his bike, as is the nature of cycling. But he was assessed, holding onto the medical van for that assessment to take place, and after failing the assessment, Higuita withdrew from the race.

Dr O’Donnell thinks it might be the start of a change, now that there is more attention on the issue.

“Now we know the world is watching, and there are questions about head injuries, CTE, impacts of long term head injuries and the pressure that is being placed on a team or rider,” Dr O’Donnell explained.

We’re starting to ask questions, and to at least take into account the athlete’s wellbeing.”

There has been a history of the imperative of all cyclists and team directors to finish the race and at whatever cost. Cyclists are often treated for crash injuries holding onto the side of cars, while they ride on in pursuit of the peloton.

“We know that athletes aren’t always the best decision-makers for their own health, and this is why we need to remove the decision from them. We should ask if they’re ok to get back on, and the race or the team should have a protocol that decides that they’re not fit to get back on” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell is excited about bringing her medical knowledge to commentary. She knows that her insight is good for fans, and good for the sport, and so is the trail she blazes.

“We’re seeing more sports in Australia really step up with the number of women commentators,” she said.

“I think people of all genders need to listen to voices that are different from each other, both the gender of the commentator, but also their perspective, their age, the type of experience they had racing.”

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Dr O’Donnell, and other female commentators like Daisy Pearce (AFL) and Isa Guha (cricket) are part of a new generation, that is bringing female voices to living rooms across Australia.

There are many like them around the world and it is making the experience better for fans.

“What we’re seeing now is the standard of commentary of professional sport is lifting remarkably,” Dr O’Donnell believes.

“I think where we have seen the evolution is firstly and importantly having Australian voices for Australian and New Zealand audiences.”

Despite Dr O’Donnell’s knowledge, it hasn’t helped her where its most important, the commentary tipping competition.

“I come last nearly every day, so I don’t want to drag anyone else down. There’s no money, no food, it’s just pride, and we don’t want Robbie to win again” she explained.

Even if she comes last in the tipping competition, Dr Bridie O’Donnell has become a leader for so many. Her commentary, full of insight, has grown to become an integral part of the Australian Tour de France coverage.

Catch the Tour de France, and Dr Bridie O’Donnell in commentary on SBS every night from 26 June to 18 July.
The Inner Sanctum has all your Tour de France needs covered.

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