Shortly after the 2012 Summer Olympics rode into London on the back of Danny Boyle’s giant baby, NPR’s All Things Considered aired this interview with Jordan Roseman, the mashup artist better known as DJ Earworm. As the interview explains, the organizers of the London games commissioned nine Olympic-themed mashups from the man behind the annual “United State Of Pop” mix, to be played during breaks in the action at the XXX Olympiad. However, Roseman made a curious discovery upon turning in “Gold,” which features a combination of the vocals from the once-unavoidable Pitbull single “Give Me Everything” and “Bugler’s Dream,” the tympani-driven Leo Arnaud fanfare that many Americans consider the “theme song” of the Olympic Games: The London officials were unfamiliar with “Bugler’s Dream.” The key part of the previous sentence is “Americans consider”; outside the 50 United States—and those poor, unfortunate souls not served by the networks of NBC—“Bugler’s Dream” has nothing to do with the Olympics. It became the signature sound of American TV coverage of the games thanks to ABC, which eventually handed the tune to NBC. Heard today in a mashup of sorts with John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare And Theme, those commanding notes are your nightly signal that Bob Costas is about to open the doors to his fake private library—but only if you’re watching the games in the U.S. and on NBC.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon; certainly there are Canadians out there who find it hard to believe that Saturday-night NHL broadcasts in the States were never prefaced by the hi-fi-ready brass of Dolores Claman and Jerry Toth’s immortal “The Hockey Theme.” (A song which, unfortunately, no longer introduces NHL games in the Great White North, either.) But the fact that Roseman and countless others who’ve grown up with NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games would just assume “Bugler’s Dream” is an officially sanctioned selection of the International Olympics Committee speaks to a major drawback to The Peacock Network’s presentation of the games. As Americans, we’ve made the Olympics in our own image, complete with theme music. This is far from a controversial statement (in that it’s been said a million times before, not that it’s utterance won’t bother at least one proud American jingoist), but what’s deemed worthy of inclusion in its primetime Olympic telecast shows NBC Sports programmers to be blinkered when it comes to international competitions. It’s the U.S. first, the U.S. last, and the major achievements of other nations are pushed to the 11:30 p.m. margins or tempered with an equal or lesser achievement by an American athlete. Because, “U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!”
Look, I’m no sports-TV pollyanna; I realize NBC is in the business of attracting eyeballs, then convincing the brains behind those eyeballs that gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson uses a specific brand of paper towel. Given that NBC is a network broadcasting within the United States to a largely American audience, it makes sense that the majority of its coverage would be devoted to American athletes. And if there’s one thing those American TV viewers love, it’s a comeback. And if there are other things they love, those probably include the return of conquering heroes, a come-from-behind victory, and partially exposed asses. And that’s how you get a full night’s coverage of Olympic action led by an hour-plus devoted to Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings’ latest last-second save.
Not as if what May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings have done match after match in these Olympics isn’t impressive; and even with the results of those matches floating around the Internet for hours before they air on NBC, there’s a legitimate drama to beach volleyball (when the cameras aren’t trying to jump up the competitors’ swim trunks). That back-and-forth is inherent in the sport and implied by the name of the game. But treating viewers to Walsh Jennings telling China’s Xue Chen “Not so fast, I’m still here” with each and every block made for a rough entry point to the four hours that followed the match. Especially considering that another group of American beach-volleyball veterans also overcame the odds to make it to the finals on Tuesday. Unfortunately, April Ross and Jennifer Kessy’s victory over Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva of Brazil was confined to a brief epilogue to the May-Treanor-Walsh Jennings win. Ross and Kessy lack the star power and emotional hook of their countrywomen and future opponents, but they’re just as deserving of extended coverage. As such, anticipate NBC giving priority treatment to this rare all-American final, which ought to eat up two hours of tomorrow’s broadcast, with Chris Marlowe and Kevin Wong racing to dissect every last dig, kill, and hit.
Whereas Marlowe and Wong can barely get in a piece of analysis before the tide in a beach volleyball game shifts—and that’s when you can hear them over the ambient noise of Horse Guards Parade, which frequently turns Marlowe and Wong’s musings incomprehensible—their colleagues calling events in track and field and gymnastics have far too much time to talk during lulls in the action. When you’re inserting chipper little biographical details like hurdler Kellie Wells’ rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend (followed in short succession by the death of that boyfriend and Wells’ mother), it might just be time to learn to stop worrying and love dead air. Or choose a different, less emotionally manipulative portion of Wells’ life story as a focus point, rather than dropping that double tragedy into a laundry list of intros that often feels like the “He’s a…”/“She’s a…” opening moments of Jeopardy! What Wells has overcome—a personal pain which she’s only recently acknowledged publicly—is staggering, but the moments before the runners take their starting blocks isn’t the place to kick off a condensed Lee Daniels movie.
Being more selective about when they talk and what they talk about certainly works for the play-by-play and color commentators who closed out their women’s gymnastic run tonight. Part of that is just a necessary silence in the presence of such focused athletes; the other is that the movements of gymnasts speak better from themselves than any other athletic pursuit on display at the Olympics. Besides, who wants someone yammering through the elegance of Deng Linlin on the balance beam or the acrobatics Aly Raisman in her gold-winning floor exercise?
Raisman’s gold-winning turn on the floor was one of the night’s moments where NBC was fully justified in putting such a tight focus on an American athlete—but what of 100m hurdles champion Sally Pearson, who set an Olympic record on her way to winning Australia’s first track and field gold since her country hosted the 2000 summer games? Or Dutch gymnast Epke Zonderland, whose gravity-defying moves on the high bar were shuffled off to the final quarter of the night’s broadcast? There are interesting stories with international protagonists happening at these Olympics—for another example, men’s 1,500m gold medalist Taoufik Makhloufi, an Algerian who was temporarily booted from the games for not giving enough of a shit during the 800m—but the National Broadcasting Company isn’t in the business of going too deep into those stories. The network has its priorities, and it surely has data on what the American public wants to see when it sits down to watch the Olympic Games, and there’s so, so much happening in London from which to cull four hours of primetime coverage every night.
But even then, Bob Costas couldn’t take the program to midnight without filling time with footage of Matthias Steiner dropping 196 kilograms on his neck. The lack of up-close-and-personal coverage with athletes from other countries is likely a question of access, as well, but it’s still frustrating to watch Pearson wait out the results of a photo finish, collapse in post-victory ecstasy on a rainy track, and then disappear into the night. At least bronze medalist Wells and silver medalist Dawn Harper got to describe the cinematic stakes of the race to the NBC cameras.
Sure, part of watching the Olympics is hoping to have pride in your country reinforced by the achievements of your fellow Americans. But Sally Pearson’s not going to be on my television anytime in the foreseeable future, and I feel like I only heard part of her story. It’s all well and good, though—she probably would’ve been baffled by the trumpets blaring under replay footage of her big win in the rain.