Thursday, August 2, 2012

MTVP London 2012 Olympics Coverage: Swimming, Gymnastics, and the Art of Managing Expectations

It’s been an interesting first week of the London 2012 Olympics, that’s for sure. On NBC’s primetime coverage, we’ve been treated to (or subjected to, depending on how you look at it) quite a lot of swimming and gymnastics. Each event brings a set of expectations, trumped up by the commentators, and the meeting or failure to meet those expectations drives the news coverage the next day. This is, of course, the media’s job, but it seems to have taken a heightened tone this Olympics and that is troubling. The Olympics, of all events, should be a time to celebrate the world’s diverse cultures and the almost unfathomable amount of training and dedication Olympic athletes put into their sport. I’m not one of those people who say everyone’s a winner and competition is bad, far from it, but the media coverage of the Olympics this year is disparaging to the athletes to an unacceptable degree. It’s fickle and gold medal obsessed. The same person can be the hero one night, a disappointment the second, and a hero again on the third. It’s like Oceana’s doublespeak in George Orwell’s 1984. The commentators hope that when they’re disparaging an athlete one day, we’ll forget that the athlete was deemed “the greatest” the day before. If it’s not fickleness, it’s unrealistic expectations in the first place. The coverage in general is just an unfortunate, America-centric (in the worst possible way) mess.

The coverage of swimming really exemplifies how fickle the coverage can be, most likely because there are so many potential events in which the athletes can compete. Both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have been the primary focus of the coverage. On the first night of the Olympics, Lochte won the gold medal in the men’s 400 IM, while Phelps failed to medal at all. Instantly, Lochte was crowned the “greatest swimmer in the world” and Phelps was a has-been. Then, the next night, in the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay, Phelps swam an excellent second leg of the race, while Lochte, swimming as anchor, failed to maintain the lead his teammates had given him, resulting in the American team winning a silver medal. All of a sudden, it was somewhat cool to like Phelps again, while Lochte was a villain. The Phelps love amplified further on Tuesday when Phelps won his eighteenth and nineteenth Olympics medals (one silver one gold), making him the most decorated Olympian of all time. Sure, Lochte brought some of this on himself with his declarations of it being “his time,” but the back-and-forth of the coverage was just exhausting. And it took away from other, surprise achievements, such as 23-year-old Nathan Adrian winning gold in the men’s 100m freestyle.

When athletes fail to live up to the media’s trumped-up expectations, those athletes just completely drop off the radar. Going into the gymnastics competition earlier this week, if you listened to the commentators, you’d think that the Americans were expected to take home every gold like China does in diving (don’t even get me started on that one). The USA men’s team, however, met with disaster. After a dominant qualifying night that largely lived up to the trumped-up expectations, they completely fell apart in the team finals, with numerous major mistakes and falls happening, to wind up in fifth place. Part of the problem could be that since the majority of the public only watches these sports once every four years (coverage can be difficult to find in non-Olympic years, as I learned the last time I wanted to try and follow swimming), so it’s hard for us to know if the grand pronouncements made by the media at the beginning of the Games are in any way valid. Judging from what I saw of the men’s team final, I can’t understand why they were hyped up so much. Going back to the point I’ve been trying to make, once tings started really going south for the men in the team final, the coverage, which NBC had basically stated would be America-centric (don’t even get me started on that one, either…I still can’t believe they cut the 7/7 memorial from the broadcast of the Opening Ceremony), completely stopped covering the American men and started focusing on other countries. Now, in a way, I think that’s not a bad thing- I would be bored by only seeing American athletes all the time during the Olympics, but the obvious way it was put together to say “yeah, they suck so we won’t show you them anymore” was rather disappointing.

The individual all-around gymnastics competition also had some really strange coverage choices, including the dropping of an American who failed to meet hyped-up expectations (with the added level of schmaltz from multiple interviews where this particular American stated that he wanted to win to help his struggling family financially). That American would be John Orozco. Orozco had a rather disastrous set on pommel horse (what a strange event, by the way…I really want to know who thought “oh, let’s make a big block with handles and have people swing around on it and call it a sport”), and he wasn’t shown again for the rest of the night (that I could tell, at least…I was packing for a vacation I’m taking while watching). On the opposite end of the spectrum, German gymnast Marcel Nguyen won the silver at the men’s all around, and all we saw were his floor exercises. That was the last event NBC broadcast of that competition. It was like “here’s this guy we haven’t shown you all night, but look, he just won silver!” I could have done with a few fewer shots of American bronze medalist Danell Leyva wrapped up in his old towel and more coverage of the actual competition.

So yeah, I think that this year in particular, the commentary for the Olympics has been especially driven by hype and the very latest results. Place on top of that an expectation that nothing but gold is good enough (we have a lot of awesome silver and bronze medalists, people!), and you get coverage that, at times, can be kind of unpleasant. Just stop watching you say? Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. I’ve been watching the Olympics since 1988 (I remember really loving figure skating at the Calgary Winter Games), and I don’t see that stopping any time soon. I still love being transported to that other world for two weeks every other year. Another world where obscure sports capture the world’s attention and unlikely heartwarming stories can be found in the most unexpected places. Plus the athletes are kinda hot, you know?

No comments:

Post a Comment