Your enjoyment of tonight’s Olympics probably depends on how much you care about the enduring legacy of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. In case you haven’t noticed during the extensive coverage they’ve received on NBC thus far, they are the reigning queens of beach volleyball, gold medalists in Athens and Beijing who retired only to come back and dominate once again in London. Plus, y’know, they play beach volleyball. An NBC exec doesn’t need another reason to devote more than half-an-hour of primetime to these ladies. And for all the snickering about the skimpy outfits, beach volleyball can be compelling stuff. But I won’t deny I zoned out watching the entire gold medal match play out.
As with most events, NBC has just been giving us prime-time snippets of beach volleyball, dropping us in for the last few points to see Misty and Kerri triumph in each of the qualifying rounds. But for a final, against American upstarts no less (Jennifer Kessy and April Ross), we got to see the whole game. While Kessy and Ross kept things pretty close in the first set, the result was never really in doubt even if you were going in unspoiled, and I think I’ve come to the incontrovertible conclusion that I can’t watch more than five minutes of beach volleyball a day. Still, as predictable as it was to watch Misty and Kerri trot off into their Olympic sunset, it’s surely impressive. NBC, surprisingly, didn’t lay on the back-story too thickly, although the requisite Morgan Freeman-narrated Visa ad, painted in shades of gold, did that work for them.
This was a day dominated by track and field events—mostly running, including the 110 meter men’s hurdles, the women’s 400 meter hurdles, the women’s 200 meter finals, and the long jump. Usually NBC makes a modicum of effort to sprinkle in some glimpses at the weirder events, but with America placing nowhere in individual horse jumping, table tennis, or men’s sailing, we didn’t venture outside of the Olympic stadium too much.
I did enjoy the lead-off diving event, although platform diving doesn’t have quite the same bounce to it as springboard. Still, hard not to be terrified for those women all the way up there, and I’ll admit to flinching a couple times as their heads almost brushed against the very solid diving platform. Since the track and field events had a “comeback” storyline running through them for most of the American athletes, the same model was applied here: Katie Bell recovered from a horrific bellyflop injury (ouch) to return to the Olympics, and Brittany Viola finally qualified after two previous failed attempts. But this was one of those times where it was clear the Americans didn’t really deserve the attention. They both qualified for the semis, but neither placed in the top eight, while Chinese diver Chen Ruolin utterly dominated.
After diving and beach volleyball, it was just running event after running event after running event. We’d check in with the long jump throughout, which lent a slight air of suspense to those proceedings, but that’s an event about which even the announcers have little to say. Don’t foul, try to keep your head up as long as possible, and, well, jump really far. U.S. gold winner Brittney Reese has a compelling narrative going for her, though. Not only had the four-time world champion come fifth at Beijing, giving her a real drive to prove herself, but she was jumping to help restore the Katrina-ravaged Mississippi coast, where she went to school. There weren’t too many of NBC’s little bio-movies during the broadcast, but Reese’s probably carried the most weight tonight.
The comeback thread ran through almost every track and field event, though, with almost every race going America’s way. Along with the long jump, the U.S. captured gold in the women’s 200 meter and the men’s 110 meter hurdles, getting silver in the women’s 400 meter hurdles. The only heartbreak came in the latter event, with Lashinda Demus collapsing to the ground after she failed to catch Russian Natalya Antyukh. Demus promised she’d be back until she won gold, telling Lewis Johnson, “you will see me in 2016.” Hard not to admire her gumption.
But in the 110 meter hurdles, Aries Merritt captured gold after finishing fourth in Beijing (he suffered from injury and the death of his grandmother in the months leading up). In the women’s 200 meters, Allyson Felix won gold after two consecutive silvers in Athens and Beijing. NBC hit the “long road to victory” message hard, although it could have hit it even harder; the coverage was more muted and the bio-films less dramatic than we’ve seen for some of these events.
The coverage of Felix was the strongest overall: If I had ever heard of her, I had forgotten her name, but a five-minute video about her attempts to get gold (she hired a new coach, adopted a new training regimen) was all I needed to have my heart in my throat when she came around the turn on the track. It helps that she’s one of the most personable athletes I’ve seen interviewed at the games so far. As much as I’ve been quickly won over by other big Olympians like Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Missy Franklin, they’re still kids who are incredibly inexperienced in front of a microphone. But Felix was confident, winning, and full of positive drive. I guess it helps to have done this a couple times before.
As much as the track and field got repetitive, we are at least mostly clear of the endless heats and semis that clogged up the last few days of events. Heats are probably the least dramatic part of the Olympics—the announcers know who the favorites are before they begin, and they are never proven wrong. There was one semi today, though, that couldn’t help but be exciting—another glimpse of Usain Bolt as he qualified for the men’s 200 meter final with ease and practically set the camera on fire with his attitude as per usual. Tomorrow’s race should make for compelling stuff.
Since I grew up in London, I have a real affinity for the U.K. athletes, so I was sad to see no Union Jacks today. (We’re still doing exceptionally well in the medal count.) But it’s been heartening to see the games go so smoothly after an opening ceremony that whipped up civic pride I’d forgotten I possessed. NBC’s U.S.-centric coverage has been much-discussed already and is mostly forgivable, in my eyes, but the network was lucky to have a slew of events where the country totally dominated today.