Friday, August 3, 2012

The Culture Nerd's Guide to Olympic Coverage

I'm not a long-time fan of the Olympics.  I never harbored any secret yearning to be a gymnast, as many young girls often do - even though I was prime age for Magnificent-Seven-worship.  I have vague recollections of "The Dream Team," and there's of course the lingering memory of the bombings in Atlanta in 1996, the kind of tragic event that a little kid never forgets, but also never really understands. On the whole, the Olympics meant little to me as a child.  They were something that came to Atlanta when I was nine, and to Salt Lake City when I was fifteen.  I paid a minimum amount of attention.  In fact, when I went to college and met someone who was a self-proclaimed Olympic junkie, my first thought was, stupidly, "There is such a thing?"

In short, I've never really known how to get excited about the Olympics.  In the early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about the Olympics possibly becoming obsolete, with national investment dwindling, and the suggestion that host cities were better off not draining their resources into a venture that would ultimately become nothing more than a ghost town and a tarnished trophy of glory days.  And, since I had never particularly cared about the Olympics, I thought this might be an accurate description of the cultural trend.

Since then, two things have changed, and whether independently or connected, I'll never be sure.  It seems as though the world cares about the Olympics again - but maybe that perception is because I care about the Olympics now, for the first time.

Now I can't possibly understand how the Olympics couldn't be exciting.  By utter definition, it's designed to be both compelling and infectious.  There's something so winsome about bringing the world together in good-natured competition and sportsmanship, mingling the tradition of years past with the hope - even reassurance - that we can peaceably coexist on this planet even despite age-old differences in culture, language, race, and religion.

I began to realize this in Vancouver, in 2010, and am rediscovering it with London now.  (I thought maybe I was just a Winter Olympics kind of girl, but turns out Summer suits me just fine too.)  And something else I love about the Olympics, beyond the promise of diversity, unity, and global consciousness, is the idea that there's so much to learn.  There's so much data involved in the Olympics - from rules of a sport, to its scoring systems, to each athlete's individual strengths and weaknesses.  The nerd in me delights in trying to upload that into my brain, so that participating in the games becomes that much more engaging and rewarding.

It's this concept of Olympic information and the communication thereof that seems to be a double-edged sword in these London Olympics.  When the games are taking place in another country, the responsibility falls to the media of each nation to bring the news back home.  And when there's only one American news network providing coverage, the responsibility of information to an entire country of people falls on one corporation.  Monopoly of media inevitably causes problems.  We do, however, still live in a society where access to information is at an all-time easiest, and the London games are being touted as the first Olympics to take full advantage of social media outlets.  Theoretically, this means that news out of London should be synchronized, and made available to the American public in a fairly undiluted and unbiased format.  After all, it is news.

Alas, this ideal is only half-fulfilled.  Just as there is good and bad to, well, everything, there is to social media and its uses, and I fear the Olympics media coverage in the United States shifts easily and nonchalantly towards the bad - or at least the disheartening.  (I mean, there's a segment with Ryan Seacrest called the "Talkmeter," comparing American athletes' popularity with Angelina Jolie's right leg at the Oscars.  This doesn't seem like the harbinger of great reporting.)

Every day, as Olympic events are going on in London, information is being posted to the internet: real time reactions, results, and reports.  But if you want to watch them?  You might be able to see them live through NBC's website, if you have a good internet connection and already pay for cable.  (I do, and still couldn't access the videos.)  The best option is to wait until NBC's primetime televised Olympic grab bag, where they present the events of the day in chopped-up pieces, so that not only is there no excitement in wondering who won thanks to the days' spoilers, but also no stretch of time long enough to stay truly engaged before Bob Costas pops up, tells us what we should think about what just happened, and slingshots us into the middle of another notable American highlight we have no context for.  I can see the merit in this design: it's bite-sized pieces of the games so that Americans with busy schedules can see the highlights, like a clip show, and get the "most important" information.  

But at the same time, it has a few negative outcomes, especially when it's the only design for the citizens of the United States to experience the Olympic coverage.  (Again, media monopoly?  Problematic.)  The format condenses an entire day's worth of information, excising simultaneously the sustained joy, excitement, and energy of the Olympic competition.  If you'll allow me to adapt it to the age-old, over-used adage: it gives us fish, without teaching us how to fish.  Watching NBC's primetime coverage is like being spoon-fed information that has been boiled down for us.  It's already bottom-lined, essentialized, and wrapped-up with a bow of shiny American pride.  We don't have to know anything about swimming to understand that Michael Phelps is the best swimmer ever.  We don't have to see entire games or matches, just the last five minutes, or whatever NBC deems most important.

It's this suggestion as well that is somewhat disconcerting about bullet-pointing the Olympic coverage: in that NBC has to condense a whole day's worth of competition into roughly four hours, it also means that they choose what is "most important" to show.  What results is a tendency to editorialize on the assumption that Americans wish to be entertained by the Olympics, and only care about the American athletes' medal count to boot.  And there's no other option.

This editorializing seeps into even the most basic commentary on many Olympic events.  In women's gymnastics, the Russian team was subject to American commentary, which portrayed them as a group of "divas," and Aliya Mustafina in particular was repeatedly referenced as being stubborn, haughty, and difficult to work with.  The American team, however, was portrayed with zest and zeal, and NBC even found a story to sell: the Tragic Tale of Jordyn Wieber.  Wieber's failure to advance to the All-Around competition by only fractions of a point, despite being expected to make it easily, sparked a sensational story that basically resulted in her representation as the Martyr of Women's Gymnastics.  There was more focus on Jordyn Wieber's loss than there was on Gabby Douglas' and Aly Raisman's triumph - and hardly any mention of Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney, the Fab Five's remaining two, at all.  Instead, the team performance commentary was centered around "winning one for Jordyn Wieber," and it worked.  It got to be that I couldn't even hear mention of Jordyn Wieber without tearing up for the tragedy of what befell her at the games.  The association between Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber was so insisted upon that even during Aly's performances in the All-Around, the camera kept cutting to Jordyn in the audience (even though she was there, with McKayla and Kyla, to support Gabby and Aly's shot at a medal).  

The idea that the American media needs to decide first what Americans care about, in order to ensure their ratings, leads as well to a nasty whiff of ethnocentricity in American coverage.  I am all for American pride, and giving the American athletes a spotlight in front of their country.  I'm also all for learning more about the athlete's backgrounds: NBC is very good about airing interviews with the athletes, and clip packages letting the audience know the athlete's back story, and often family life as well.  That's been great, and helps to connect the viewers to the games and the athletes competing in them.  But in contrast to the onslaught of American coverage, there's hardly any illumination of anything not-American.  A tribute to the 7/7 victims of terrorism in London was omitted from NBC's Opening Ceremony coverage.  There's also been no mention of the fact that this Olympics coincides with Ramadan, and many Muslim athletes are choosing to adhere to their fast while in the competition.  Stacking this with the portrayal of the Russian women's gymnasts as diva villains, and it's hard not to reach the conclusion that apparently America just doesn't care about anything else.  

This only validates the pre-existing perception of the United States as a nation whose people can't be bothered to imagine anything beyond their borders because whatever might lie there is insignificant at best.  Only this time, a major corporation is nourishing this damaging stereotype, and the very real seed which lays at the root of the "ugly American" caricature.  What's worse, those citizens who do want more exhaustive, inclusive, and unbiased coverage are not only left to watch the Olympics without it, but are also at risk of being called "unAmerican" for a point of view that simply extends beyond the borders of our backyard and the myopic lenses of the media.  Putting forth any complaint about the coverage is seen simply as internet hatred, the vitriol of young people who idly bitch about anything and everything.  Deaf ears abound.

I get that NBC has to make money.  I get that they have to sell an engaging story.  But the underlying takeaway from the exaggeration of these concepts is that the media doesn't trust the intelligence and emotional investment of the American people.  We are being condescended to, with programming that bottom lines a wealth of nuance in athleticism, history, culture, and sportsmanship, and sensationalizes only our own involvement in the tradition.  Ultimately, it feels antithetical to what the Olympics is really about: bringing the world together on common ground, where culture simply means pride and patriotism for the athletic accomplishments of all nations.

In the end, I've found that the best approach to being involved in the spirit and tradition of the games is to seek out information on your own.  It's not easy, because there's 205 nations competing, in 300 events, with 14000 athletes, and only so much time in the day.  But the information is out there: you just have to find it.  Even though it's difficult to watch events as they air, you can go to the London Olympics website, which is not only an encyclopedic resource for athletes, event schedules, and medal counts, but also features live, play-by-play coverage of all events in real time.  There's also an accompanying app to download, where you can customize your Olympic experience.  There's other nations' news broadcast sites too, and videos where the commentators are far more positive about the athlete's performances.  

When it's all said and done, the actual bottom line to participating in the unfiltered joy and unbiased appreciation of the Olympic Games is to exercise the true power of social media, the light and truth that's always on the other side of oversimplification and editorialized "stories" - the information is available.  The excitement is out there.  It's up to you to find it.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with your analysis.

    I found the opening ceremonies as edited by NBC to be the most ridiculous (and, to be honest, borderline offensive) part of their coverage to date.


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