Since nearly everyone’s begun with a little backgrounder, I’ll just come right out with it: I love the Olympics. And call me what you will—I like watching Americans win in the Olympics. I am all about our American athletes standing underneath the stars and stripes, like they play for a Washington D.C. sports franchise. Perhaps it’s because I associate watching the Olympics with being at the beach growing up, but against the complicated realities of the world and adulthood, the Olympics are simple this way. (I’ll even admit that I don’t entirely hate watching opponents cry a little in defeat.) But beyond our borders, there’s a crack in my titanium heart for stories like the double-amputee Oscar Pistorius advancing to a medal race or the British Jessica Ennis laying on the track as a stadium of Brits just loses it. I love seeing people compete for their countries, even with all the ludicrous pageantry that surrounds that simple idea. I love the damn Olympics.
NBC and the five-hour time delay are making it a shake challenging this summer, however, especially as the games shift into the occasionally dicey portion of the events.
I couldn’t recall exactly why I didn’t get as into the track and field events in Beijing—as opposed to swimming, a sport I really couldn’t care less about in general—until the track coverage turns to Justin Gatlin. Oh, right. Doping! Drugs! Hormones! Sadness! Sorrow!
The omnipresence of the drug charges makes for awkward coverage. NBC likes a narrative—are we intended to get behind the formerly doping Gatlin? Should we elevate Carmelita Jeter to household-name status when the crux of her segment is a new “controversial” coach who’s pushed her into the best shape of her life, at age 32? How critical or speculative does the coverage need to be? (Not very, if the first couple nights are much of an indication.) Can we invest ourselves like this, or is it just willful naiveté? I said above the Olympics are simple, but maybe it’s something more like, “The Olympics ought to be simple.”
The American public operates something like a kangaroo court where it comes to the forgiveness and defamation of doping athletes. There’s some kind of alchemy involved, with demonstrated regret, the estimated effect of the drugs, and the level at which the athlete captured hearts and imaginations, and it separates the Andy Pettittes from the Marion Joneses. It’s unclear where Justin Gatlin falls on that scale, but it forces NBC to more or less lead with, “Who do you like to win—this old, injury prone American, this doper, or one of these two Jamaicans that win everything?”
In the seemingly endless series of semifinal heats, however, NBC doesn’t touch on much of that. Nor does it exactly gin up a lot of human interest in anyone besides the two Jamaican sprinters (Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce). I’m partial to these kinds of profiles, and frankly, I’ve only seen two decent ones so far: Fraser-Pryce and Missy Franklin. I think part of it is the tape delay. For whatever reason, NBC apparently only feels like people are interested in profiles of the people who win the race or event they are immediately about to watch. Fraser-Pryce and Jeter are the only women profiled for the 100-meter dash, and finish one-two—despite two other Americans running in the final, another Jamaican (Veronica Campbell-Brown, who looked like she popped over from dinner last night to run her first heat), and the Nigerian sprinter with the memorable haircut. I would really like to know more about Sanya Richards-Ross, for example. Richards-Ross receives a 30-second spot on the necklace she wears—a silver bullet, given to her by her mother—but Richards-Ross was born in Jamaica and became an American citizen, and is married to NFL player. Certainly I’d love to know more about Pistorius.
No big deal, though, I’m sure they’ll get an awkward post-race interview or two. The insistence that swimmers and runners be interviewed seconds after finishing their races—just one trinket in the sprawling menagerie of NBC peculiarities—continues to defy human logic. The poolside interviews are basically Andrea Kremer lobbing backhanded compliments at the heaving swimmers who are dazed enough to answer questions about what Michael Phelps’ legacy meant for their performance. Lewis Johnson appears to be nine feet tall, and asking gems like, "How do you balance the demands on your time between the media and the events on the track?" What's Bolt going to say? Eventually at one of these Olympics, Kremer will just jump into the pool and ask a teenaged girl if her training meant she couldn't go prom.
Anyway, elsewhere in the stadium, NBC botches the hell out of the long jump competition. Rather than splice in, between other events, rounds of the long jumpers jumping in real time, NBC blasts through the three medaling jumpers and the Texan Longhorn like they were Sportscenter highlights of a long at-bat. The whole allure and tension of events like the long jump is kind of like gymnastics—it’s in the wait. You have to sit around and see if the next guy can top this guy, and have some time to concede, you know, “Holy shit, that’s a long way for a human being to jump,” for it all to mean something.
Perhaps some of the beach volleyball match could be cut for the long jumping. Ha ha, beach volleyball cut for anything ever? Here is another difficult feature of the tape delay: The Dutch have a good beach volleyball team, so, I assume, NBC bounced it from the daytime live coverage (where most of the volleyball has been) expecting a good match, and instead got a Saturday night edition of Steamrollin’ the Dutch. The match is never close, really, and the stakes don’t seem especially high, with the Americans defeating them handily in a quarterfinal. The commentary crew is forced to sort of suggest maybe perhaps NBA players showing up and (awesomely) warming up with the team before the game might affect their play. Well, it doesn’t. Misty May offers the one ounce of spontaneity for the entire primetime night, doing her traditional shoutin’ of acknowledgements, including her family, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the troops. What could have replaced, exactly, the volleyball match is unclear, but it seems out of place in the primetime lineup. If this is what NBC does with the actually important basketball games, my head may pop clean off my body.
As a general capper to the technical primetime hours of coverage, though, Ennis’ victory in the heptathlon works. Phelps was talking earlier in the week about the power of walking into the arena and having his name chanted. The scale of that shot of Ennis, laying on the track with the crowd just exploding—I mean, can you imagine? That’s unlike almost anything else.
- There is weirdly not much to discuss regarding the Mary Carillo hostage trip to Scotland’s Drumline-esque bagpipe festival, wherein she met some Canadians and wore a kilt and tie around. As someone said to me on gchat, “Mary Carillo is basically the rodeo clown of NBC Olympics coverage.”
- Also, the U.S. men’s and women’s swimming relays won as cappers to the incredible runs of Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin at the 2012 games. Earlier today I was reading one former female U.S. Olympian say this women’s team is the best in her memory. I know a lot of people tire of the swimming coverage, but I think there’s room here for a contextualizing piece done by if not NBC, then ESPN on how those teams get put together and how this one in particular was so dominant, in a substantive way.
- NBC should introduce the swimming graphics that announce the winners when they touch the wall into track events.
- Felix Sanchez, possessor of the Robin-Hood-esque facial hair, advanced to the 400m hurdles final out of the Dominican Republic, but is a natural born American citizen and a University of Southern California graduate. There’s somebody NBC should profile.
- A 33-year-old Dutch mother won a bronze in swimming Saturday. Good for her!
- Serena Williams on the medal ceremony American flag falling down: “It was trying to hug me.”
- The best ad of the Olympics so far is, unequivocally, the Nike Greatness jogger ad. Then the P&G mom ad. But my personal favorite is the “GE Works” ad, which features badass music and makes working out look like something out of Minority Report.
- More than anything, I really appreciate our volleyball players’ refusal to wear their bathing suits over their clothes.