A marathon runner and lifelong soccer fan, CNN sports anchor Don Riddell has lived in Buckhead near Chastain Park since moving from England to Atlanta in 2012. He has hosted “World Sport” for CNN International for the past 16 years and has also presented “Living Golf” and programs such as “World News” and “CNN Today.”
Riddell, 46, covered the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, as well as the fatal plane crash that wiped out most of the Brazilian Chapecoense soccer team that same year. He produced two award-winning documentaries: “Branded a Rebel” about a West Indies cricket team that defied the rules of the day by touring apartheid-era South Africa, and “They’ll Never Walk Alone,” about the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield that killed 96 soccer fans.
Q. How and when did your fondness for sports begin?
A. Soccer was the first sport I really loved. My team is Tottenham Hot Spurs, the Premier League team in North London that got to the Champions League Final this year.
Q. How has the perception of U.S. soccer fans changed in recent years?
A. The rest of the world looks at the United States with a curious eye. Americans do have a great interest in sports generally, but had less in soccer. ‘It’s a sport that high-school girls play’ — that’s how [the U.S. attitude] was viewed overseas. I knew that wasn’t necessarily true, but I was interested to find out what the case was. Clearly in the last 10 to15 years a lot has changed and it’s undeniable now that this country is really getting into it. For a while I thought that fans were just going along with it — because it was different — but didn’t necessarily get it or understand it, but now that I live here I see the passion is real and genuine. There is a real love of the sport, and what’s happened with Atlanta United is just extraordinary. I’m thrilled it’s happening in my town.
Q. What do you think of the recent Women’s World Cup won by the U.S. team?
A. That’s really exciting. The amount of investment is clear to see because they are streets ahead of anyone else, but in this World Cup we saw that certain European teams are catching up. The quality and the skill is undeniable and the standard is improving at a fairly rapid rate. The reality was there wasn’t enough money being put into the game and they were not being coached or trained properly. Now look how good they are.
Q. What was it like covering the Olympics in Rio?
A. The popular narrative had people mocking it months before we even got there. But here I was at the Olympics — my first time — and it was really cool. Didn’t everybody want to be here? You’d go to the stadiums and things might be a little disorganized, but if you watched it on television it all looked great. At the end of the day it was all about sport, and there was some incredible sport. To see the finale in the flesh is just a remarkable experience. Unforgettable. I really enjoyed it and hope to be at the next one in Tokyo in 2020.
Q. Shortly after that you were covering the Chapecoense plane tragedy.
A. It was a really intense experience — remarkable to cover. It was utter devastation. Every night fans would come to the stadium because they didn’t know what else to do. This was a very tight-knit, close community. There was a lot of love for the team. I went back two months later when they got a team together and played their first game. Friendships were forged out of this tragedy.
Q. Do you believe sport can lift us?
A. It can teach us so much about individual growth and development. In terms of breaking down barriers, especially now that the world is so polarized, you get a bunch of people together on any kind of playing field or court and all that goes out the window. We are all just human beings just trying to be better.
Sports is a great way of realizing and appreciating what we have in common — working together trying to achieve a common goal. I’m not sure I swallowed that when I was younger, but now that I’m older and wiser it’s quite clear to me sport has a huge role to play.
–Kevin C. Madigan