Although the summer Olympics have much to offer—the breathless aerials of the uneven bars, the ever-present risk in a perfectly tucked dive, the primal satisfaction of just watching people run really, really fast—deep down I’ve always been a Winter Olympics kind of a girl. Not for some sensible reason, like I dabbled in curling as a child, or was raised in remote Western Canada. Basically it boils down to Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
The year was 1994 and Harding allegedly had two goons assault Kerrigan with a collapsable police baton to keep her out of the competition (the details are explored in the glorious made-for-TV movie Tony And Nancy: The Inside Story). The scandal that led up to the figure skating competition that year, for better or worse, provided a narrative through line for the first Olympic games I was really conscious of. Initially sucked in by the salacious and bizarre I became an avid fan of the sport itself (I even picked up figure skating but never graduated beyond a single Axel). But as the games went on I never lost the hunger for more stories about the strong, beautiful women on the ice, and NBC did not disappoint. I stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed as they linked Surya Bonaly’s rebellious, ballsy backflip with the insane story of her adoptive French parents finding her in a bush somewhere in Sierra Leone, the painting of Katarina Witt as comeback kid back on the ice for the first time since 1988, the revelation of Oksana Baiul both as overlooked, mind-blowing athlete and scrappy orphan who used to sleep on a cot at the rink where she trained.
No matter how many incredible Olympic moments have come and gone since then, that is the year I will remember most viscerally, because I was young, because it was personal, because it is basic human nature to latch on to personal stories, and that doesn’t have to obscure or diminish raw, objective skill and achievement. Is scandal and sentimentality the point of sport? No. But I’m willing to admit that when it comes to sport-as-entertainment, it doesn’t hurt. Sheer excellence in athletic performance may make winners, but the media’s penchant for storytelling turns those winners into heroes. Where other reviewers have called for more straight up sports coverage and less human interest boosters again and again over the past week, I thoroughly enjoy the assistance in seeing competitors as individuals, reflecting on their lives as Olympians, being taken out of the action for a moment to be reminded of the personal or professional stakes at hand for a particular athlete.
The problem isn’t the existence of these backstories, but NBC’s treatment of them. When sharing biographical details in the midst of competition, the commentators seem to have a hard time keeping it brief, so that it’s not distracting. When delivered in a prepared video, the quality comes off as a little cheesy, a little canned, a little bit like the confessional booth on The Real World. There is a real opportunity, and effort, to weave together a show that is intentionally rather than detrimentally made up of multiple elements, but it’s just not quite good enough to do the athletes justice. What is really unfortunate is that NBC is failing in its video content where commercials are succeeding with far less time or need. The little meet-the-athlete sidebars feel like hokey commercials with stock footage of scenic beaches or families posing on the playground, while a TD Ameritrade commercial about Jonathan Horton climbing to the ceiling of a department store as a child, or Yelena Isinbayeva learning the pole vault when her dreams of being a gymnast are dashed, are embarrassingly moving mini documentaries about the genesis of greatness.
Also embarrassing was the truncated coverage of what was by all accounts a truly thrilling women’s soccer match between the United States and Canada, the kind you spend all day getting excited about watching in primetime if you haven’t had the chance to stream it in real time. Bob Costas actually just summarized the event rather than even pretending to give it the faux-live-treatment bit—rather a slap in the face, but we all know they’re just racing over to the track and field events (pun intended). Also getting a bit of a gloss-over in the show’s opening was the male sprint in the Velodrome, but at least that event received the common courtesy of fake-live-coverage, probably in part because a young Brit, 24-year-old Jason Kenny, won the gold medal.
The explanation of sports terms and techniques seemed strangely uneven throughout the show. One minute the commentators will explain, effectively yet concisely, why the bikers in the sprint spend the first lap of the race controlling their speed until the last 200 meters (resembling nothing more than a slow motion game of chicken on wheels) or how the speed and direction of the wind can play a huge part in shaping the performance of a pole vaulter, as it did for Jen Suhr (gold), Yarisley Silva (Silver), and Isinbayeva (placing unexpectedly low at bronze) tonight. A particularly effective illustration was the Eadweard Muybridge-style distention of action used to show the range of motion during men’s diving, such that you could see each step of each rotation alongside the one before and after it, a reminder of the fact that the Olympics really exist to celebrate what a wondrous piece of work the human body is. The next minute, however, the ’casters are dropping types of jumps named after famous gymnasts of the past, or the name of the last Russian competitor to win multiple gold medals for the same category in 1970-something, references that mean nothing to Olympic outsiders unless paired with just a hint of further explanation.
The springboard preliminary was the first event given deeper coverage, and rightly so; the competition is tight and has nearly deaf American diver Chris Colwill to focus on—but it’s also terrifying. Every time the diver starts to come down from the initial ascent there’s a little flip in my stomach, my hand goes to my mouth, and I prepare to see someone’s head cracked open on the board, filling the pool with blood. I’m happy to report that despite just such an incident with Canadian diver Alexander Despatie earlier in the games, the pool remained unbloodied this time around. The equally lengthy coverage of men’s beach volleyball initially seemed irksome—perhaps this is unfair, but it’s hard for me to take seriously a sport that involves the recreation of a beach and blasts of Top 40 hits in between sets—but it ended up being a very tense game. It was easy to think of Latvia’s Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins as the underdogs from a global perspective—and their visibly smaller stature when compared to Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal—but after two close rounds their reliance on strategy paid off. They will be going up against the Brazilian team in the semi finals.
Far more distracting than the splicing in of pseudo-home-videos was the back and forth between multiple track and field events. Perhaps the show’s producers thought the cross-cutting would create a sense of energy, but instead the constant return to the most depressing pole vault of all time after brief looks at races of various lengths felt like that tiresome, excruciating cut back to the falling truck in Inception. Since all of the action has in fact been, say it with me now, RECORDED EARLIER we are left to conclude that the hectic, sloppy toggling is a choice rather than a necessity. Despite this treatment, however, there were some really emotional moments, such as Felix Sanchez holding the photo of his grandmother crossing the finish line, and great underdog wins, such as that of Kirani James, the first athlete to ever win a medal for Grenada. The Caribbean athletes generally killed it, delivering winners from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and of course good old Grenada. The idea of returning to the country that once colonized yours, and eking out some kind of victory on their turf, must be satisfying.
The climax of the program tonight was unequivocally (and unsurprisingly) the gymnastics. Gabby Douglas, quickly shaping up to be this year’s Dorothy Hamill, gave a few thrillingly high leaps on the uneven bars but the competition was just so fierce a small mistake left her in last place. While reports of her constant, not-sweating-it smiles are highly exaggerated, she did seem a bit off from the get-go tonight, noticeably feeling the pressure of either her spectacularly lauded earlier win, or having to go last after seeing one flawless routine after another— or both. In the men’s still rings, however, a sport that requires a nearly inconceivable amount of strength and control hidden by aerial grace, it was a veteran rather than a newbie I found myself rooting for in Jordan Jovtchev. Like the Susan Lucci of the Olympics, this guy has competed in six different games, not to mention built a gym in his home country of Bulgaria, and never won a single lousy gold medal. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Not only was Jovtchev bumped down by a slew of younger athletes, the near perfect performance from sassily winking Chen Yibing was pushed to silver after the, in my mind, slightly less perfect showing from Arthur Zanetti of Brazil. Zanetti was the very last to perform and when his score was announced, there was an audible gasp from the audience. The drama of that moment held up despite its several hour delay in being delivered to American primetime.
Despite my preference for context, there was one video interjection I haven’t quite been able to wrap my mind around and would love to see debated in the comments if only because it might sway me one way or the other. Mary Carillo’s explanation of how England is the birthplace of the chronometer and longitudinal space and time; does it add value to the proceedings, or distract us with unnecessary, at times even goofy information? Of course, the same question could be asked of NBC’s approach to the coverage in general.
- The opening credo tonight seems painfully obvious: “They compete to win, but sometimes they represent something more.” Like, for example, their country? Yeah, we got that.
- It’s pretty adorable that the sprint bikers basically have to be held up by their coaches until that buzzer goes.
- Apparently when it comes to diving, the louder the better. The louder the board creaks, the deeper it is depressed, and higher the diver’s initial leap will be.
- Chinese diver Qin Kai is described as a “veteran at 26”. This reminder of the limitations on life as an athlete strikes me as profoundly sad.
- At the one point the commenter says that runner Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce from Jamaica has “a smile that belies an inner strength.” What does that even mean? That ladies who smile are generally weak? Then why the fixation with Gabby Douglas’ pearly whites?
- Tomás González of Chile is a total vaulting hipster, complete with gotta-be-ironic pervert ’stache and eyebrow ring.