Sunday, August 1, 2021

Watching the 2020 Olympics in 2021

So, our house is one of those that every few years shuts down whatever else we're doing - watching movies, watching baseball, etc...  and we watch the Olympics, both Summer and Winter.  This started when Jamie and I were dating, so you're talking going back to, like, 1996 (Atlanta).  

I've had my beefs over the years with the Olympic sports themselves, but mostly the coverage of the Olympics by NBC.  Now, NBC has multiple networks going, so you have about 3-4 options 24 hours per day, plus the Peacock app where you can watch events after the fact.

Full stop, my favorite things in the Olympics are:
  • Women's Beach Volleyball
  • Women's Soccer
  • anything during Track and Field
Look, I showed up for Beach Volleyball about 2004 for less than wholesome reasons, but that's long since in the rearview mirror.  And, yes, my favorite squad has transferred from Walsh-Jennings/ May-Trainor to Ross and Klineman.  I mean - Ross/Klineman kick ass.   

I mean, here they're just jolly.  But I assure you, they kick ass.

But the new squad of Claes and Sponcil are super promising.  Keep yer eyes peeled.

Women's soccer won me over pre-Olympics with the 1999 FIFA World Cup (Brandi Chastain has still provided one of the best sports moments I've ever seen on TV).  So, rolling into the Olympics and following many of those same players was a total thrill.  And, you can check their record, but the USWNT tends to deliver (their first gold was 25 years ago today!)

And, man, swimming is good and all, but Track & Field feels like pure athletics to me, so I don't care who is on the track or field, or what the event might be.  Give me a 100m sprint, any day.  Give me a good 800 m, or shot put.  Make me grit my teeth during pole vault.

That said, I'll do swimming, gymnastics, dressage, fencing, tri-athlons, judo, fencing, archery, whatever.  This year I've watched BMX and skateboarding (which was very bad, actually.  Olympians fall off their skateboards as often as kids at the local strip mall).  Handball also turns out to be kind of exciting.  And, of course, rugby.

I don't care for:  golf, tennis, water polo and other Olympic sports as televised events.  Look, water polo is probably a fine sport to play, but if all I can see is your head for the duration of a match, and you're wearing a cap that makes you look like a gnome, this sport is bad on TV.

NBC also covered a lot of table tennis (aka: ping pong), as well as badminton.  And while I respect the sports, I literally can't see fast enough to see what's happening in those games, so I don't feel bad for not watching.  Kudos to those who can actually play, but, man... y'all are wired in a way I am not.

It's been 3 years since a Winter Olympics, five since Rio.  Plus, we've had a pandemic and now several rounds of Olympics while twitter has existed to talk back at NBC.  And, honestly, the coverage is better in many ways.  Sometime in the early 1990's I first noticed that NBC wanted to package stories about athletes so we had mini-narratives tucked within the overall Olympics.  And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but what happened was three-fold.  (1) We lost a ton of time we could have been watching actual sports being played watching mini-docs about an athlete so we'd all get the story NBC was pushing.  (2) NBC guessing that these athletes would play well and have a happy ending to what was invariably a story of tragedy overcome to get to the Olympics would not pay off.  The athlete would fail to medal or get bumped before the finals or whatever.  (3) Then Andrea Joyce would be there shoving a mic in the face of the athlete asking the athlete why they FAILED after coming in, like, fifth in the Olympics.  

It was kind of cruel in a way that went mostly undiscussed.  But was also a weirdly negative culture in how NBC covered the Olympics.  They would tell you how great the Olympics were, and why they were important for international blah blah blah... But then they really leaned into "everyone who doesn't Gold has failed.  Everyone who didn't medal failed you, the viewer, and America.  And they owe you an explanation why, even though you've never seen this person before we rolled the mini-doc package on this person 20 minutes ago." 

I'm sure they'd point to how kind they were to Michael Phelps, but for every Michael Phelps, there were 20 Kim Zmeskals, who didn't perform the way the pundits decided they would and should, and spent the rest of the Olympics discussing their "failure".  It was pretty gross.  

At least in gymnastics the athletes generally don't have some vulture waiting for them the second they get off the balance beam, but in sports like diving, you'd have an NBC "reporter" with mic in hand either asking "this medal is so special.  But you just lost you mother.  What does this mean to you?"  Like... not the time.  If they want to talk about how this win is a tribute to their mother, fine.  But that's not your f'ing business, NBC.  Alternately, if a diver did poorly, there was our intrepid reporter shoving a mic in their face asking "so, that didn't go as well as you would have liked.  Please explain yourself to America.  What went wrong?"  All of which NBC should have known was not setting anyone up for success on any subsequent attempts or future endeavors.  Andrea Joyce is not there to moderate a performance review.

Add in the not-insignificant "color commentary" by the NBC announcers, which was either conferring deity status upon a 21 year old (and then immediately watching as same 21 year old screwed up) or nitpicking the performance of athletes punctuated with the disappointment and shame those athletes *must* be feeling.  Frankly, it's super off-putting, but was the gold standard in sports from gymnastics to figure skating to diving - pretty much anything based on technique.   

What was weird was that NBC's approach went more or less uncriticized by anyone else in the media, which leads me to believe - they would have done same.  I mean, I remember no think-pieces about "what the hell is wrong with Andrea Joyce?" which was always the question on my mind.

But something changed at NBC since Rio.  Maybe it started in the winter Olympics.  Maybe it's new producers at NBC Sports.  Maybe it's a sense of empathy that evolved during the pandemic.  Hell if I know.  But this Olympics has been delightfully free of exploitation of family tragedy *except* how it was framed by the Olympians themselves - even if there's been a leading question or three.  

A few years ago, NBC thought it would be cute to bring Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski as a pair to do some commenting on ice skating - and while they talked about hopes of athletes and what went wrong, they *didn't* chirp over the entire performance or continually use words like "so disappointing".  And, wow.  People liked that.  Overnight, the old guard was retired and Johnny and Tara became the way things were done.  

the always understated pair

I have to think some lightbulb lit over NBC Sports heads when they saw the positive reaction on social media.  But I also have to think:  I couldn't have been the only person tweeting at NBC with the basic notion of "what is wrong with you?" over the years.  

Further - the "tales of tragedy and triumph" stuff made for both bad TV and likely people changing channels.  Look, I'm here for a 100 meter race.  If the main idea can be summed up in a 60 second package, fine.  And, as Jamie pointed out to me, the 14 hour time difference means we're watching replays of a lot of sports, so they're going to show the sport but not fill airtime with packages about athletes who are going to immediately fall over getting off of the blocks.   

But there's been inclusion of footage of parents back at home (which is sweet, honestly, and should continue).  Softball questions of both winners and losers, which is what every good baseball sideline reporter figured out works best decades ago.  And, most importantly, they quit treating Silver and Bronze as badges of shame.  "Gee, Sally, you came in one-one-hundredth of a second behind the competition.  That Silver has just got to be a painful reminder of how you failed yourself, your family, your team and America.  How do you explain this failure?"

And, remarkably, the cameras are showing the athletes congratulating each other.  

NBC has always pitched "rivalries" as some sort of Sharks and Jets gonna end in blood set-up, but... it's not.  That's generally not how sports work.*  You play yourself as much as you play anyone else.  When you're not doing well, you can recognize game, but you also need to up your game in order to win.  Sometimes you can do that, and sometimes you can't.  Getting chirpy is usually because of either exhaustion or because you see the other party doing some bullshit and you're calling it out.

Ostensibly, the Olympics is about international peace and cooperation. Brother and sisterhood.  Pitting some cold war logic to the Olympics wasn't great then, and it's genuinely bad now.  So, yeah, seeing athletes crossing lines to high-five, fist-bump each other, hug, whatever.  Those extra few seconds of footage are actually *important*.  That's what sports look like when it's the best of the best.  Sure, there's heartache and some pain.  Not everyone loves each other.  Or knows one another.  But it's still people doing all of these sports, not automatons.

And, of course, I very much appreciate that NBC has multiple networks going.  But it seems like the 7 PM - 10:30 PM also has been doing a pretty good job with highlights as well as showing exciting stuff happening live (if your definition of exciting is Beach Volleyball and Track).  And, not just focusing on Americans.  After all, this is 206 countries coming together.  If Luxembourg kicks ass in skeet, cool.  Show it.

Lastly - you can very much tell things are different at NBC as the narrative around Simone Biles has been human and empathetic.  Sure, there's some ass-hats out there whining about Biles stepping aside, but as someone familiar with panic attacks and anxiety - friend, I would not want to be trying for a triple flip during the Vault, either, if I was feeling that settle in.

Anyway - there's another week of Olympics, and that includes some very good stuff. 

Now, if we can get the IOC to grow up about some of their dated and sexist policies.

*Javy Baez and the Reds' Garrett being maybe an exception

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