I’m afraid I have to start by offering almost the exact opposite of Meredith’s confession from last night’s coverage: I’ve never really understood the appeal of the Olympics. I love watching sports, specifically basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and lately tennis—in other words, the professional sports that you can follow year-round, where loyalties lie with particular teams or individuals rather than with countries. I love rooting for the Chicago Cubs (well, love might be too strong a word) and I found the NBA playoffs this year just ridiculously fun to watch (even if I wasn’t crazy about how it ended), but it’s never quite made sense to me why I should necessarily care about Michael Phelps every four years when swimming isn’t a sport I follow otherwise. I can appreciate his incredible achievements, of course, but I’m less drawn to the dominating performances and the race for the most medals than I am the unlikely underdogs whose competitive spirit harkens back to the original amateur ethos of the Olympics (admittedly, these athletes may or may not actually exist). To put that in less rarefied terms, there’s a reason why I thought Eddie the Eagle would have been the perfect Briton to light the Olympic flame last week.
I don’t say any of this to be pointlessly contrarian or to dismiss the Olympics out of hand. Quite the opposite, in fact: I went into tonight’s coverage eager for the Olympics—either helped or more likely hindered by NBC’s coverage—to change my mind about what the London Games have to offer. Which is one of many reasons why NBC’s opening 30-minute flashback to the 1996 United States Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team that won gold at Atlanta feels like a gigantic misstep. The so-called Magnificent Seven are probably the most famous American Olympians in modern history, with only the 1992 Dream Team and Michael Phelps rivaling them. As such, rehashing their achievement in not particularly illuminating fashion—I highly doubt gymnastics fans heard anything tonight they didn’t already know, and there are only so many ways you can repeat the fact that Kerri Strug was nervous before it gets tedious—on a night when there weren’t even any gymnastics events feels like a waste of time. I know I’m not the typical Olympics viewer, and I can understand NBC’s impulse to build some nostalgia into their Olympics coverage, particularly since they only come around for a couple weeks every two years. But something this banal should only be closing out NBC’s primetime coverage, not kicking it off. In particular, I’m irritated that the primetime coverage of the two men’s tennis semifinals, including Roger Federer’s epic 19-17 triumph over Juan Martin del Potro, is nothing more than a quick highlight package. The finals matchup between Roger Federer and British hopeful Andy Murray is effectively an unprecedented sequel to last month’s Wimbledon final, and the quality of men ’ s Olympic tennis is now almost as good as what you would see at a Grand Slam. Even if tennis isn’t a quintessential Olympic sport, I’d argue this deserved some attention. I also would have been thrilled if NBC had devoted this half-hour time to the more random Olympic sports, such as the men’s team pursuit cycling finals (complete with strategic crashing), table tennis, judo, or what I’m pretty sure is our official site favorite, team handball.
Beyond that rather inexplicable decision, my main complaint with NBC’s coverage is the terminal lack of context. I don’t mean the tape-delay edits here. They’re a necessary evil considering London’s time zone, so I’m fine with not seeing every moment of an event in the primetime package, particularly when it’s all online anyway for the diehards to enjoy. But as a big sports fan who doesn’t necessarily know much about the specifics of the Olympic sports, I often found myself having to puzzle out the rules out of each event. I don’t know off the top of my head that 25 is game point in women’s volleyball or have an intuitive grasp of how the qualifying works in the women’s 50-meter freestyle. These are details that eventually become obvious from context, but this is where an introductory graphic with a brief summary of the relevant rules would be helpful. What irritates me about this is NBC’s apparent implication that knowledge of the specific rules don’t matter, that we should just be swept along by the natural drama of the Olympics, drama that they’re often trying to manufacture through their editing and cutaway packages. The things I’m talking about here are little details, but they’re the sort of information I expect from any sports broadcast, and the lack of them reminds me that NBC’s coverage of the Olympics isn’t primarily meant as a sports broadcast in the same way an NBA game or a Wimbledon match are.
This is particularly problematic in cases like the women’s 50-meter freestyle, where NBC built drama around whether American Jessica Hardy would qualify for the finals without ever really clearly explaining what she needed to have happen in the next race. Admittedly, I probably should have been able to guess that she just needed an overall top eight finish, but there are enough slight variations in the qualifying rules between the different events that it wouldn’t have hurt making it completely clear. After all, that tends to be more the approach taken by other American sports broadcasts—for instance, every college football broadcast that goes to overtime takes the time to spell out the delightfully insane collegiate rules, despite the fact that probably at least 90% of the audience already knows them by heart. Also, NBC doesn’t always identify its announcers during the broadcast, which is particularly irritating when the analysts are clearly speaking from their own Olympic experience. It would be nice to know that diving analyst Cynthia Potter won bronze at the 1976 Montreal Games, which could quite easily be conveyed in a graphic listing the announcer’s names, something that is again a mainstay of pretty much every other sports broadcast I’ve seen. But at least I got her name so that I could look her up on Wikipedia—I don’t think tonight’s broadcast ever mentions the analyst’s name for the 100 meter track trials. I’m sure this sort of thing doesn’t much bother the average casual Olympic viewer, and I have no doubt that those who have been keenly following the events each night had none of these problems, but it all kept me at arm’s length from the proceedings.
While swimming coverage dominates the evening, it was actually the other aquatic event that I most enjoyed, at least in terms of NBC’s coverage. The preliminaries of the women’s 3-meter springboard may not sound especially scintillating, but announcers Ted Robinson and Cynthia Potter do by far the best job of explaining their sport to an outsider. While I didn’t necessarily come away from the diving coverage able to tell an 8.5 from a 6.5, the post-dive breakdowns, in which Potter shows what each athlete did right or wrong at each stage of the dive, helped me understand what the judges are looking for and which aspects of the diver’s technique are most important. In particular, measuring the exact angle at which the diver’s legs enter the water—exactly perpendicular is great, while just 2 degrees off is apparently kind of terrible—helps hammer home just how razor-thin the difference is between success and…well, failure is probably too strong a word. Indeed, that’s the issue with an event where 18 of the 30 divers in the preliminaries end up qualifying for the final. In particular, I’m pretty sure means NBC greatly overemphasizes the struggles of American Cassidy Krug. While she clearly isn’t diving as well as the favorites in the event, she ends up in tenth place, her score of 320.10 places her a good 35 points above the elimination line. It’s particularly hard to buy NBC’s narrative about her struggles going into her final, supposedly all-important dive when the preceding competitor, 17-year-old British diver Hannah Starling, is presented as a plucky underdog whose come-from-behind 17th place finish earns her a somewhat unexpected berth in the next round. When Krug’s underlying graphic tells us she’s already in tenth place, it becomes harder to believe her Olympic hopes are really on the line here.
The day’s featured track events—women’s 100 meters and men’s 1500 meters—are also still only in the early stages, which gives NBC a chance to set up narratives that they can only hope will pay off later. For the women’s 100 meters, that means the Americans vs. the Jamaicans, with the American Carmelita Jeter absolutely dominating in the first heat we see while the world record holder, Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, clearly only does just enough to win in her heat. In its way, it’s the even more dominant performance, since her at what appears to be 70% effort is still good enough to easily beat everyone else in the heat. The announcers find less fine-grained technique to analyze in the 100 meters than their counterparts do in the diving, and a lot of the analysis focuses on the athletes’ ability to respond as quickly as possible to the starting pistol. Mostly, the event is just notable because the replay, in which the camera tracks level in real-time with the sprinters as they cover the 100 meters, is just ridiculously telegenic, probably the most visually striking display of raw athleticism tonight’s coverage has to offer. The men’s 1500 meters proves more interesting from a strategic perspective, as analyst and former competitive runner Craig Masback points out how different entrants pace themselves through the laps and try to avoid being trapped on the inside of other runners with no way to maneuver when it comes time for a final sprint. Unfortunately, I don’t think the event translates well to TV, with most of the race looking like a disorganized jumble compared to the clear separation of the sprinters in the women’s 100 meters.
Swimming, of course, is the story of the night, and the American competitors make things easy for NBC by winning gold and setting world records in multiple events. While I’m guessing the coverage’s American triumphalism was pretty grating on nights where the Americans weren’t all that, well, triumphant, tonight it’s hard to begrudge announcers Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines their excitement about Michael Phelps’ valedictory performance (give or take one final relay) and Missy Franklin’s rising star. Unexpectedly, it’s 15-year-old Katie Ledecky who steals the show with a dominant victory in the 800-meter freestyle, a race so long and grueling that I really can’t complain that NBC cuts away from it halfway through, especially since I was already checking my phone before they went to break. NBC really doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting at all to make these events compelling, and most of the broadcast’s little flourishes add value to the proceedings. For instance, I’m a fan of the moving world record line, and, like the 100-meter track events, swimming naturally photographs beautifully. I know there’s been plenty to complain about the swimming coverage at this Olympics, but I’m inclined to let NBC have this one. Besides, the closing shot of Ledecky crying on the medal stand as the national anthem played was by far the most moving, emotional moment of the night as far as I’m concerned.
Before that final poignant moment, the coverage wraps up with the men’s trampoline finals, which prove quite concisely that trampoline is totally awesome. In what might well be NBC’s most baffling decision of the night (and believe me, that’s up against some pretty stiff competition), they bring in Olympic snowboarder Shaun White to chat with Bob Costas about how the trampoline event relates to Shaun White. As it turns out, it doesn’t really relate at all—White doesn’t really use trampolines in his training, despite Costas’s repeated attempts to suggests that he does—which makes the ostensible segue even more bizarre than it already is. NBC’s real reasons for having White on tonight are obvious: He’s a likeable presence, and it’s as good a way as any to remind viewers that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are just two short years away. But NBC’s apparent obsession with a larger narrative means trying to force this non-existent connection between White and trampoline, not to mention a lot of vague thoughts from White on how watching other athletes compete inspires him to get back to training. It’s a weird, slightly maddening end to the night’s coverage, which seems entirely appropriate. The Olympics have won me over—I’m still an NBA and MLB kind of guy, but I can understand much better why people get such joy out of the Games when they come around—but NBC just can’t seem to let the events speak for themselves. Indeed, with the carefully constructed narratives and the consistent lack of basic context and explanations, it’s as though they’re loudly screaming over all the events, “This isn’t a sports broadcast! This is something…greater!” Which is a shame, because a simple, well-produced sports broadcast would suit me just fine.
- My favorite Costas moment of the night was when he was listing Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Katie Ledecky as American swimmers who had dominated the games, and the clear disdain with which he included Ryan Lochte in that group.
- If I can be allowed one petty nitpick, Dan Hicks claimed British favorite Rebecca Adlington was speechless after Ledecky’s incredible swim. I’d actually say her congratulatory, “Amazing, fantastic job, amazing!” was pretty loquacious for someone who just swam 800 meters.
- I suspect we’ll get more discussion of this once Phelps completes his final event, but Costas’ brief monologue about whether Phelps is the greatest Olympian of them all really could have taken up some more time and been fleshed out into an actual debate with other analysts. I’m personally inclined to go with Jesse Owens, considering the massive social significance of his four gold medals (which were in both various sprint events and the long jump) and the fact that World War II robbed him of two Games in which to increase his medal totals.