The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 15, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 15, 2014

Context is a tricky thing for NBC to get right in its coverage of the Sochi Olympics. The network lucked out today as the American and Russian hockey teams played an instant classic, with the United States emerging victorious after five minutes of sudden-death overtime and eight rounds of penalty shootout. Faced with cutting down such an epic game to a concise half-hour segment, NBC picked up the game in the overtime period, providing only a short highlight package of regulation and a brief introduction from host Meredith Vieira to orient new viewers. The primetime broadcast offers no explanations of the more technical details of Olympic hockey, even in situations where the participants themselves apparently needed an explanation.

Indeed, play-by-play man Doc Emrick noted at one point that the ref was reminding the head coaches of how the extended shootout rules worked, but it wasn’t until the post-game studio wrap-up that the audience learned just why the rules allowed T.J. Oshie to take almost every single shot for the Americans. As someone used to watching standard American sports broadcasts, this is where NBC’s coverage loses me. If a college football game is tied at the end of regulation, I expect to see the standard graphic outlining the sport’s wonderfully bonkers overtime rules, and there isn’t the equivalent graphic tonight explain why, say, the game has suddenly switched to a four-on-four contest in overtime.

But then, such a complaint willfully misunderstands what NBC aims to accomplish with its coverage. As long as the audience understands that America and Russia are locked in sudden-death competition, the rules defining said struggle are beside the point. In theory, that just means that NBC is treating hockey—one of the only sports at Sochi that enjoys a following in the U.S. outside of the context of the Olympics—no differently than it does the ski jump or the skeleton, but there’s something bigger going on here. After all, any Olympic hockey game between these two nations instantly recalls the legendary Miracle on Ice game between the Soviet Union and the U.S. at the 1980 Lake Placid Games. Tonight’s coverage plays up this connection by bringing Al Michaels—the man behind the iconic “Do you believe in miracles?” call—into the studio to discuss today’s game with Vieira and Emrick. At one point, Michaels claims that this game was more intense than a deciding Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, a statement that was instantly juxtaposed with him and Emrick somewhat sheepishly explaining that, since this game was just part of the group stages, it doesn’t have much impact beyond determining the seeding of the eventual knockout tournament.

Given that disclaimer, this game should be close to meaningless; certainly, I get the sense that Canadian hockey fans are scoffing at how much its two Olympic rivals care about a group stage game. But this is where the inherent nationalism of the Olympics comes to the fore. In the wrap-up chat, it’s mentioned that Vladimir Putin helped select the coach for the Russian squad, while President Obama conveyed his congratulations to shootout victor T.J. Oshie. The medals provide a clearly defined endpoint for the competitions at the Olympics, but these hockey games really are just exhibition contests between all-star teams without this larger, patriotic context in which to exist. The disparity between the importance of the Russia-U.S. game as a contest in a hockey tournament and its importance as an expression of global rivalry is an intriguing illustration of the complexities of the modern Olympics. It’d be silly to criticize NBC for not digging into those philosophical implications, but the fact remains that the most fascinating aspect of the opening segment—apart from what looked like a hell of a hockey game—is buried in the subtext.

The rest of tonight’s coverage fell into two basic categories: events where Americans weren’t in contention at all and events where Americans were present but out of the running for gold. The Men’s Skeleton was primarily pitched as the race for bronze between Americans John Daly and Matt Antoine, but that seemed broadly defensible given the huge leads separating first-place Russian Alexander Tretiakov from second-place Latvian Martins Dukurs and Dukurs from the rest of the field. Skeleton is a decently telegenic sport—who doesn’t like to watch people race down a slide headfirst at up to 80 miles per hour?—but it’s a tricky sport to understand as it unfolds. The constant cuts from one camera to the next make it difficult to follow the flow of the action, and the technical adjustments made by the races are so subtle that it’s hard as a novice viewer to pick out what determines a good run or a bad run. It’s only when Daly misjudges his start that the audience sees an obvious mistake; it’s the sort of miscue that I would ideally want to rewatch straight away on instant replay, but the nature of skeleton means that the audience—and, heartbreakingly, Daly himself—has to sit through the entire run before going back to watch what made the run meaningless before it even began. Commentators Leigh Diffey and Bree Schaaf make a game attempt to dig into the event’s technical complexities, but NBC’s American-centric remit means there’s little opportunity to discuss the plight of Martins Dukurs, who is apparently the most dominant skeleton racer in the world but has had to settle for silver in consecutive Olympics.

With no Americans in the final round at Men’s Ski Jump, announcers Bob Papa and Jeff Hastings downplayed the potential human aspects of the event and focused on the sport itself. Their commentary was more interested in the technical aspects of the event than the competitive implications of a given jump. Papa and Hastings discussed in some detail what makes an ideal jump and how the jumpers must compensate for the wind, but it was less clear what distance a given racer would need to achieve on his jump in order to be in contention. That makes sense, considering only a handful of competitors had a serious chance at coming away with the medal; indeed, the commentary did focus more on needed distances towards the end of the event as the main contenders made their jumps. Still, this was another instance where NBC’s approach went against my instincts as a viewer. That isn’t a criticism, exactly; if anything, it just reminds me how much my understanding of the grammar of sports broadcasts are shaped by the mainstream America sports, and how much most of the events at Sochi break out of that mold. Besides, I now have a much better understanding of just what makes a good ski jump, which is sure to come in handy sooner or later.

The night’s other highlights, Women’s Alpine Super-G and various speed skating events, found the commentators struggling with how best to discuss external factors that might or might not be warping the outcomes of their events. Tonight saw the American speed skating team return to their old uniforms in an attempt to recover from their underwhelming performance thus far. Announcer Dan Jansen voiced skepticism that the uniforms could account for the difference, citing instead American champion Shani Davis’ vastly different results when competing at altitude and competing at sea level. The continued lackluster performance by the Americans seemed to disprove the uniform hypothesis, but the commentary could have been more specific in explaining why the Americans were struggling; for instance, the announcers noted that Davis was grimacing as he entered the final lap, but it would have been useful to spell out what such visible pain and exhaustion means for a speed skater in that context. Still, Davis was overshadowed in his own race by the eventual champion, Poland’s Zbigniew Brodka, who emerged victorious by three thousandths of a second over the Netherlands’ Koen Verweij. Both NBC and the American team treated the latter’s failures as a baffling, deeply annoying mystery, so it made sense to shift focus to those whose success needed no further explanation.

 In the case of the women’s alpine event, the announcers noted that eight out of the first 13 competitors failed to make it down the hill, something former champion Steve Porino said he had never seen before in his life. At first, color commentator Christin Cooper seemed to attribute this to the fact that Super-G requires competitors to ski down a hill they have only ever inspected, not practiced on; indeed, there was some great analysis of the strategic, team-based aspects of the event. But the warm weather seemed to lurk in the background as the potential real reason for such unusually high attrition; play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks noted it was 36 degrees Fahrenheit at the top of the slope and a positively balmy 50 degrees at the bottom. The announcers never quite made the connection between the attrition and the relatively high temperatures—one of many things Sochi has been criticized for as a Winter Olympics venue—but Cooper’s repeated references to “soft, granular snow,” “weird spring snow,” and snow that “turns into soup” suggested the link was there. Admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about Women’s Alpine Super-G, so I could be totally off base in making that connection; still, that’s just the sort of context I would want NBC to provide. After all, it’s hard enough to know what’s normal in these unfamiliar events without also having to figure out explanations for the unusual.

Stray observations:

  • Austrian skier and eventual gold medalist Anna Fenniger is committed to saving Namibia’s cheetahs. Her human-interest segment raised way more questions than it answered—so wait, was she just skiing down a sand dune while wearing a cheetah bodysuit for the hell of it?—but at least it let Christin Cooper work in a series of atrocious cheetah-related puns. Left her in her cheetah dust, indeed.
  • After last night’s brutal interview with women’s skeleton fourth place finisher Katie Uhlaender, I appreciate NBC resisting the urge to make Jon Daly discuss his heartbreaking final run, one that he himself said he was treating like the final run of his career. The decision to have Matt Antoine provide color commentary on playback of his own run was a neat idea, though I’m not entirely sure it worked. Still, the guy just did win an Olympic medal, so I won’t be too picky about vapid commentary.
  • Polish ski jumper Kamil Stoch is apparently the subject of Stoch-a-mania in his homeland. Also, one of the ski jump announcers referred to something he did as “textbook Stoch,” which amuses me no end for reasons I can’t adequately explain.
  • NBC did a nice job with its piece on Viktor Ahn, the veteran short track skater who switched nationalities to pursue Olympic gold. It was a little odd to see Apolo Ohno appear as a talking head in the piece when he was also on hand as an announcer, but I won’t quibble when we get lines like Ohno’s confident claim that Ahn “looks more comfortable skating than walking.”
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