The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 16, 2014
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USA Today

The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 16, 2014

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The 2014 Winter Olympics

February 16, 2014

Season -, Episode 11

It would be fascinating, though entirely overwhelming and impractical, to watch the Olympics by putting the coverage from each country’s major network side-by-side in a sort of Brady Bunch-style grid. The winner is the winner whether you’re watching NBC or the BBC, the CBC or Al-Jazeera, but each network takes the firehose of sports content and funnels it into a broadcast tailored to its audience, and this means bringing the events into country-specific focus requires ignoring a lot of potentially interesting stories. For example, there’s never going to be a glossy 20-minute NBC segment on the Czech Republic’s favored women’s snowboard cross athlete, although Eva Samková ended up winning the gold, and is a complete badass: She competes with a mustache painted on her upper lip, which is exactly the kind of wacky ritual that’d be highlighted in a special segment if she was born in East Lansing instead of Eastern Europe.

Then again, if I was watching every network ever broadcasting at once, I probably wouldn’t have been able to luxuriate in an NBC ice dancing commentator’s rumination on the importance of nailing twizzles. And scrutinizing twizzle polish, in addition to being an awesome-sounding phrase, is what the Winter Olympics is all about: Athletic perfectionism wrapped up in doofy pageantry.

Sunday night’s coverage doesn’t have marquee events like men’s hockey or women’s figure skating, but what it lacked in exciting sports it made up for in heartstring-tugging, focusing on a saccharine American ice-dancing pair and the human Red Bull commercial that is Bode Miller.

Matt Lauer’s dead-souled grimace introduced the night’s events, giving viewers a thoroughly unconvincing reassurance that Bob Costas will return on Monday.

The women’s snowboard cross quarterfinals kicked off the coverage, with NBC focusing on American Lindsey Jacobellis as the potential victor. One of the races saw three of the six competitors eat snow (is that a saying?) hard, leaving one with a definite impression that snowboard cross is terrifying. Snowboard cross is referred to as “boardercross” by the people who do it, an example of how committee-style decision-making can produce dumb outcomes where official names are not the same as the names everyone uses. Jacobellis ended up wiping out, handing NBC’s viewers their first sob story of the evening.

“She has been the best in her sport for over a decade, and now you have to feel for her,” Lauer intoned as the snowboard cross coverage wrapped up, basically spelling out NBC’s strategy for covering these games: jack up the sympathy knob to 11 for American athletes, then let the audience savor their triumph or wallow in their failure. This trafficking in extremes is great when the U.S. wins and provides schadenfreude enthusiasts ample opportunities, but it’s a brutal approach (then again, I rarely watch sports because I feel too bad for the losers, so perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the way failure is covered in professional athletics in general).

For the night’s obligatory host country cultural segment, Matt Lauer and Mary Carillo introduced a look at how Russian nesting dolls, or matryoshka, get made by wholesome-looking Russian families. It made me wonder if anyone has made a novelty nesting doll of increasingly red Bob Costas eyes. 

The two-man bobsled followed snowboard cross. The Jamaican bobsled team didn’t do anything to warrant a Cool Runnings sequel, though they did give the NBC commenters an opportunity to talk about “the power of social media” in reference to the team’s crowdfunding. At one point the American bobsledders did a recap of their run and NBC showed them pointing at a TV set up in Sochi replaying their race. It was just as boring as it sounds.

Tonight’s first big narrative: The American-Canadian rivalry in ice dancing. Meryl Davis and Charlie White practice on the same Michigan ice as defending champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Mori, just to give the whole thing an extra layer of intrigue. Another American pair, the Shibutani siblings, made their Olympic debut, but the young duo’s entrance into the world of Olympic ice dancing was completely overshadowed by the Davis-White hagiography.

Davis and White’s long-term ice dancing partnership was explored in a background segment that featured footage that looked like it was filtered through Instagram, videos of the pair as children timidly teaming up, a strong implication that perhaps they are eternal soul mates. “They grew up just ten minutes apart in suburban Michigan,” a voiceover announced. The platonic-with-a-touch-of-Cutting Edge story is popcorn-chomping fodder, something NBC, of course, would be silly not to capitalize on as it covers the event. Before the primetime events unfolded, NBC spent time creating a gauzy, lovable backstory for the American duo, practically begging viewers to have their hearts broken if Davis and White lost.

They didn’t lose, though, taking the lead over the Canadians in a cascade of twizzles and implied sexual tension.

The other big event: the men’s Alpine Super-G, with Bode Miller highlighted as the sport’s American hero (even though teammate Andrew Weibrecht actually won silver, beating Miller’s bronze). NBC explored Bode’s relationship with his photogenic professional volleyball player wife, Morgan Miller, in a segment that also referenced the death of Chelone Miller. Bode’s younger brother and a rising snowboarding star in his own right,  died in April 2013 of a seizure thought to be related to a dirt bike accident that happened in 2005. NBC aired footage of Morgan’s eyes welling up while talking about her husband’s dead brother, and then replayed the part of Miller’s interview with Tom Brokaw where he talked with sad eyes about how Chelone’s death affected him. This kind of sadness tourism is viewer catnip, but it’s annoying that NBC couldn’t entice its audience without exploiting the Miller family tragedy and making a grieving brother discuss what is still a fresh calamity. In an interview after Miller skied, he brought up his brother, which was fine and a normal thing to do, but the reporter pushed the topic until Miller broke down and cried against the red fence on the course. It was sad, and it was good television, but it wasn’t a very nice thing to keep showing (and replaying). I mean, they already interviewed him about Chelone. Why question him again, right after he just completed a mentally and physically exhausting performance, right when he’s at his most vulnerable?

There are a lot of valid criticisms of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, even without harping on the network’s inability to protect its anchors from devastatingly creepy eye infections. As I just mentioned, the network really milks the “poignant obstacle” athlete stories, to what I think is an inappropriate degree. And the narrative presented is inevitably going to be biased. Certain events get shortchanged. The accomplishments of lesser-known athletes get passed over in favor of stories about how American athletes beat their competitors, even if those wins aren’t objectively as compelling as the stories of other countries’ winners. Siphoning the sprawl of the Games into an at least somewhat cohesive night of television is an arduous and unenviable task, and of course NBC is going to focus on the home team. But I’d swap out the treacly background bits on Miller’s relationship or the morally questionable tragedy-gawking of Miller’s post-race tears for a few minutes focusing on an especially fascinating international athlete any day.

Stray observations:

  • I’m weirded out by the way they miked Morgan Miller. Miking the athletes is one thing, but even though she obviously agreed, it feels like eavesdropping and I don’t like it. At least they didn’t turn it on while she was comforting Bode post-interview breakdown.
  • There was a commercial for the upcoming Liam Neeson action movie Non-Stop and it made me realize the Neeson has firmly entered the Harrison Ford stage of his career and he ain’t ever coming back.
  • Here is an actual sentence someone said on television: “The cruel and unpredictable serpent of snowboard cross rises up and bites Lindsey Jacobellis of the United States yet again.”
  • “Twizzle” is now my favorite sports term and wins an eternal gold medal in the category of Sports Terms That Most Sound Like They Were Invented By Snoop Dogg.