The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 8, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 8, 2014

After Bob Costas saying “Pussy Riot” on national television and the excitement of the opening ceremony, the Olympics finally get down to brass tacks (and Costas retreated to the studio he attempted to call his Fortress Of Solitude, but let’s choose to ignore that). There’s not much by way of additional editorializing beyond simply presenting the events here, with then notable exception of Costas’ ridiculous interview with Apolo Ohno and Cris Collinsworth, in which everyone praised the opening ceremony by way of the great cultural contributions of Russia. This was probably how these Olympics will continue to address the political issues surrounding the Russian setting, so let’s move, at least for tonight, to something a little less distasteful: Commentary for Americans. 

During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, an old roommate of mine played a game which stipulated that the player drink whenever the commentators said something that amounted to nothing more than a rearticulating of the rules of soccer. If you’ve heard any American soccer commentary, you can guess that the game did not end particularly well for him.  I’m not a huge soccer fan, but that sort of announcing still bothered (and continues to bother) me—it seemed like the people involved just assumed that Americans were both ignorant of and incapable of understanding the game of soccer without constant, plodding reassurance of the absolute basics. (Of the “They’re really going to need to try to move the ball down the field, here” variety.)

The mindset that drives that sort of coverage is understandable up to a point—learning the rules of any sport is difficult (I still have to explain basketball to people sometimes, and it doesn’t get much more intuitive than that before you get to “just running”), and being thrust into and told to pay attention to an event one doesn’t understand because it’s happening on a global scale is especially difficult for Olympic viewers. Many of the events we’ll see over the course of the next two weeks have their own intricate rules, defined competitors, and subcultures. Conveying all of that information is a daunting task for even the most seasoned commentator or former competitor, especially for an American audience generally unfamiliar with even the basics of most of the sports. But there are a few ways of dealing with those limitations, some better than others.

On the dodgier side, there was the coverage of slopestyle, a new Olympic addition that finds snowboarders (and later on, skiers) competing to perform tricks while also getting altitude off jumps. The best way to characterize the slopestyle coverage is probably noting its consistent use of the word “flair” to refer to the individual styles of the snowboarders, which is less what I’d think of as awesome snowboarding and more dull Office Space (I’m pretty sure this wasn’t referring to something else, but I could be wrong). Here, the way the commentators spoke about the runs mirrored the event itself—repetitive, and often boring if you weren’t already clued in. Many of the tricks are really cool, but if anything, they’re over too quick to be truly appreciated by the casual observer, and there were only a few cases when replay was effectively used to explain a particular move. If the event isn’t going to speak for itself, it’s hard to expect the commentators to get the job done. We were constantly told there was drama in the broken rib of Canadian favorite Mark McMorris, but never saw it. At the end of the night, one said “I would not want to be a judge right now. This is so heavy.” I wasn’t buying it.

Thankfully, team skating, was not only a bit more visually stimulating, it had more effective commentary. Of course, it’s a bit easier for something that’s inherently much more stimulating to hold attention—lots of tracking movement, the changing musical accompaniment, and so on. Watching skating with the sound off (as I did the first time I watched most of the team skating) often doesn’t take that much away from the experience, since it’s still so easy to marvel at the remarkably fluid, seemingly impossible movements of the skaters. But it also turned out to be a better sport for commentary. Explaining the moves required in a full routine in the short dance could be boring, but instead got me vastly more interested in figure skating than I’ve been since the last time I went to a skating birthday party.  The replays effectively highlighted specific moves that were particularly difficult in the short dance discipline (the twizzle, apparently a “multi-rotational one foot turn”), and made it easy for someone who didn’t know much about skating to get what was impressive about which moves.

NBC contributed to the engaging quality of the skating with its focused coverage of Ashley Wagner. The produced segment mostly lets sad music and old footage tell the story—after narrowly missing the team in 2010, Wagner fell twice during the American championships this year, yet was still selected for the Olympic squad. Though she denies having to prove anything to anyone but herself, the segment presented Wagner as still needing to justify her presence on the team.  This isn’t a particularly unique Olympic narrative (and it has a happy ending, since she still went to the Olympics, even if she wasn’t as successful tonight as she’d planned), but it does manage to effectively set up Wagner’s personal stakes. And Wagner’s charisma and intensity during her run itself made the whole thing genuinely tense in a way the slopestyle never accomplished. So when one of the commentators said, stunned, “She’s on fire,” I just dumbly nodded along instead of pushing back.

That focus on developing narratives might be one way for NBC to adjust its coverage of events that are more like slopestyle. Its storytelling during the Olympics is, of course, heavily driven by those sorts of narratives, from specific athletes to the general focus on the U.S. team to the political concerns with the Russian Games (which again get short shrift tonight). The infusion of personality worked wonders: As the night went on, slopestyle got much better at telling a story, particularly for eventual gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg, who made a few runs even I could tell were spectacular on first viewing. Difficult as it may be in a live and often scattered, low-information setting, this type of storytelling is sorely needed from the rest of the broadcasts.

As a hopeful example, tonight’s coverage concluded with its best moment: A heart-breaking interview with American mogul skier Hannah Kearney, fresh off winning a bronze medal four years after winning a gold. Sympathizing with an Olympic gold medalist might seem ridiculous, but Kearney’s concerns about the peak of her career being forever in the past and her desire to “fight” to earn another medal were wrenching, tapping straight into the decades-long dark slide after the athlete’s short, bright competitive period. That glimpse into one of the uglier things we overlook during the Olympics was more moving than a hundred jumps or even short dance routines, and if there are even a few more moments like it, NBC might really have something on its hands this year. 

Stray observations:

  • Kearney lost to Canadian sisters, which, wow.
  • Blissfully little Costas tonight. We will see if that lasts.
  • Picking one other choice slopestyle quote: Kostenburg was described as putting the style in slopestyle.

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