You’d never know it from tuning in to NBC’s prime time coverage tonight, but there was a pretty big hockey game today in Sochi. It was intense and physical and the outcome was in doubt until the final seconds, but it was reduced to a 30-second montage airing over an hour into tonight’s proceedings. Would that have been the case if the United States has prevailed over Canada? Your guess is as good as mine, as long as your guess is also “hell, no.”
If you weren’t fortunate enough to watch the hockey game on your work computer this afternoon, I hope you’re really into speed skating and slalom skiing, because that’s what Bob Costas (eye status: moderately creepy) and company have in store. First up tonight is the men’s 500-meter short track, an event with which this very casual Winter Olympics watcher was not terribly familiar. With a few tweaks, it could serve as the basis of a post-apocalyptic sports movie along the lines of Rollerball. The race begins with the skaters practically sprinting on the ice before settling into a tightly bunched four laps around the track lasting just over 40 seconds. They take the turns leaning so close to the ice, it’s a wonder they don’t fall over. In fact, a lot of them do fall over, and the rules governing how much contact is allowed are fluid and subjective at best.
“This is all about speed,” commentator Apolo Ohno informs us several times. This is a strong take indeed for a speed-skating event. I‘d previously known Ohno only as a spokesman for Subway, and he might want to hang onto that gig. The major flaw of the short track event from a layman’s perspective: What appears to be the result of the race may bear no resemblance to the actual result of the race once the judges sort out who was at fault for any spills along the way. “This is NASCAR on ice,” Ohno says, which is actually the most helpful commentary of the entire event.
Next it’s time for the patented Bob Costas Two Minutes of Relevant Commentary, focusing on the crisis in the Ukraine. I haven’t seen much of the coverage before tonight, but I get the impression that criticism of the Putin regime has been sparse so far. Maybe it’s because the games are coming to an end (and, mercifully, the feared terror attacks haven’t materialized), but Costas gets in a few shots at Vlad in the course of a report on the gold medal-winning performance by Ukraine’s biathlon team. Still, the story is woefully underrepresented, with Costas merely skimming over the Olympic committee’s refusal to allow the team members to wear black armbands and the team’s post-win moment of silence.
After all, devoting a few more minutes to that story would have taken away from the coronation of America’s new sweetheart. Still smarting at the absence of Lindsey Vonn’s star power, NBC pulled out all the stops to create a new star in 18-year-old skier Mikaela Shiffrin. Of the broadcast’s first two hours, at least 45 minutes was devoted to Shiffrin and her successful attempt to win gold in the women’s slalom. She’s appealing and relatable! On her first tour of Europe, she packed too many suitcases! And thanks to NBC’s efforts, she’ll probably be starring alongside Ohno in those Subway commercials before too long. None of this is her fault, of course; it’s all just fodder for the personality-driven focus of the network’s coverage. And it’s also not her fault that the slalom isn’t exactly the stuff of riveting TV. NBC did pull off one neat trick by digitally superimposing two racers over each other so we could see the subtle differences between their approaches to the course, but overall too many minutes were devoted to this particular event.
The star-making machinery came up short in the speed-skating event, where American competitor J.R. Celski stumbled in the first round, advancing to the semi-finals on a disqualification. The pre-taped video package took an unexpected twist, however, with the revelation that Celski had temporarily quit skating after suffering an injury, only to spend his off-time making a documentary about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Alas, “Ten Thousand Hours” of practice was not enough, and Celski never really challenged in the semi-finals.
Real stars are born, not manufactured, which of course brings us to Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. The breakout announcers of the Winter Olympics dropped by to attempt to explain the scoring controversy in the ladies figure skating competition the night before. Weir could have taken pity on Costas’s eye condition, but instead he wore pants that doubled as an optical illusion. Their explanation made some sense even as they conceded that figure skating is “a weird little world” that plays by its own capricious rules. Costas surrendered and took them at their word, noting that, were he in charge, Weir and Lipinski would have their own show. I can’t predict anything else about these Olympics but you can rest easy, Bob. That is definitely going to happen.