Saturday, February 22, 2014

MTVP Sochi 2014 Olympics Coverage: Hockey, Skiing, Ice Dance, and Creating the Narrative of Sports

Because of the nature of U.S. network Olympics coverage, how the stories of the Games are covered has become as much fodder for the commentariat as the sporting events themselves. It’s a known fact that when it comes to Olympics coverage, NBC (and its predecessor U.S. broadcasters) favors a heavy mix of human interest and culture stories in addition to covering the sporting events. We learn about a select few athletes (especially if they are American and if they have sob stories that will help us root for them) and we also learn a bit about the host country’s culture. We get the latter mostly thanks to Mary Carillo, whose segment on a remote village where Russian nesting dolls are made was particularly memorable. This results in two sorts of meta-coverage, however. The first is whether the Olympics should have this human interest/sports mix, and the second is whether NBC goes too far in pursuing the human interest angle. The latter was thrown into especially sharp relief late last week as debate raged over whether a reporter went too far in questioning skier Bode Miller about his late brother to the point where Miller doubled over in tears. Let’s look at this phenomenon through the lens of three sports: hockey, alpine skiing and ice dance.

Hockey is one of my favorite sports to watch whether it’s an Olympic year or not. I’m a second generation die hard Philadelphia Flyers fan. So U.S.A. hockey games are a big deal for my mom and I. After saying this, you can bet that the U.S.A./Russia round robin play game last Saturday morning was a big deal in my family. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the game was tied 2-2 at the end of the third period, and it took an overtime and an extended shootout for T.J. Oshie to finally win the game for the United States. It was a wonderful, exciting game, and it will certainly always be something I remember (as being really too stressful to handle on a Saturday morning pre-caffeine!). While it was still early in the tournament, however, the media was already blowing up this game as Miracle on Ice part 2. Now the Miracle on Ice is a big freaking deal. My parents’ first date was watching the game on television (at my mother’s insistence, of course). I literally might not exist if it wasn’t for the Miracle on Ice. This was still round robin play. Miracle on Ice it was not. And (spoiler alert), Russia lost in the quarterfinals, so there won’t be one this year at all.

Alpine Skiing was perhaps the most egregious example of media driving the story at this year’s Olympics. One of the skiers that NBC chose to focus on was Bode Miller. Miller has a reputation as a bit of a wild child, both in his personal and professional lives. Until recently, he was quite a partier and womanizer. He has two kids from two different women, neither of which are his wife, Morgan. On the slopes, he goes fast in places where other skiers might pull back a bit for their own safety. This means that when Miller skis a race, he’s either going to win, or he’s going to crash spectacularly. This year, since Bode is now married, the media tried to soften his image, focusing instead on his courtship with his wife and the death of his younger brother, Chilly. After the race, Miller was interviewed with former skier working as NBC analyst Christin Cooper, and when Miller mentioned his brother, Cooper started pressing about that. Eventually, thinking about his brother made Miller double over in tears, yet Cooper kept pressing. The result was a complete social media meltdown, with many getting up in arms about Cooper pressing Miller too hard. Again, the media coverage had become the story instead of the sporting event itself.

Figure skating is always a centerpiece of any Winter Olympics. The Ladies’ singles event is really the crown jewel, and until recent years, Ice Dancing always seemed like kind of an afterthought. All of that changed in the 2010 Vancouver games, however, when NBC introduced us to Canadians Virtue and Moir and Americans Davis and White. Both couples train under the same Russian coach in Michigan, which of course sets up a great rivalry for the media to grab on to. In 2010, Virtue and Moir took the gold medal in front of their home crowd, and the footage of Scott Moir jubilantly singing “O Canada” during the medal ceremony has become iconic. Since that time, however, things have changed a bit. Virtue and Moir had a reality television show in Canada, where Tessa Virtue’s dislike of Meryl Davis took center stage. In the years between Vancouver and Sochi, Davis and White started winning the gold medals over Virtue and Moir, and that trend continued for sure in Sochi. While it was a huge deal that an American couple finally won the gold medal in ice dancing, much of the media coverage was focused on the rivalry, and of course all four skaters were asked what they thought of the others, repeatedly and often.

I suppose it’s not unusual for the media to shape how we view many important things in life, especially current events. That is examined in depth in “The Newsroom,” for instance. This phenomenon is always thrown into particularly stark relief during the Olympics, however, as these three examples show. In the coverage of hockey, alpine skiing, and ice dancing, we saw the coverage of the events become stories almost to the same extent as the events themselves. People get wrapped up in perceived media insults and discoveries that the truth of a certain situation is different from how NBC spun it. There will always be a dichotomy between people who want straightforward coverage of the sporting events like you’d get for your local professional sports teams and people who like the pageantry, culture, and fabricated human interest stories of the NBC Olympic broadcast. I like both forms of sports reporting, personally, but I feel like the Olympics just wouldn’t be the Olympics without that extra layer of cheese.

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