Sunday night provided some of the best prime-time Olympics coverage that we’ve gotten so far. The women’s snowboardcross was fun and exciting TV, men’s bobsled got underway and Bode Miller, one of the biggest and most familiar American stars left in these Games, won bronze in the Super-G.
That last event should have been a fairly straightforward nice moment: Miller has had some disappointing performances in the past, but this was his sixth Olympic medal, and he is the oldest person ever, at 36, to medal in an Alpine event.
The post-race interview with Miller started out discussing actual skiing-related things … but it quickly veered into a discussion of Miller’s younger brother Chelone, who died last year at 29 of an apparent seizure. Miller himself brought the topic up, but the interviewer, Christin Cooper, asked emotional follow-up after emotional follow-up until Miller shed a few tears and then finally crouched over, unable to continue.
Many viewers, myself included, felt uncomfortable watching this –- as if we were witnessing a private moment that we had no place witnessing, and one that NBC had clearly provoked. But so far, much of the blame has been directed at Cooper. And she is not the real issue here. She asked one or two more questions than she probably should have asked – For the Win has a partial transcript here. But she’s the tree. NBC’s overarching and now decades-long approach to covering the Olympics is the forest.
For many years now, but seemingly more with every Olympics it airs, NBC has prized emotional stories of athletes overcoming adversity above all else — including the actual sporting events. I joked the other night that the network might employ a black ops team to secretly bring pain into athlete’s lives so that they could overcome it on camera. But all kidding aside, the network’s coverage is drawn to tears like a shark to blood.
To a certain extent this is perfectly understandable. The Olympics are a vast and overwhelming event in which the American audience is familiar with only a handful of names. So even more than in most major sports, in order to help viewers make sense of it all, NBC works overtime constructing narratives, and it’s not always a bad thing. Like most people watching at home, I know nothing about skeleton, for instance, so when you tell me that American Katie Uhlaender is the daughter of the late MLB outfielder Ted Uhlaender, and give me a few likeable sound bites from her, I suddenly have a rooting interest to keep me engaged with this otherwise strange event. In most of these instances, there’s no real harm done, other than that the equally interesting stories of non-American athletes usually go untold.
But this obsession with the personal lives and personal dramas of the athletes can be, and often is, taken too far, as with Miller on Sunday night. It’s not only uncomfortable television, but also a disservice to both the actual and often amazing sporting feats that are the ostensible point of the whole thing, and to the more serious social and political issues swirling around these (and most) Olympic Games. Cooper is a cog in a larger and more messed-up machine, and she doesn’t deserve our vitriol. Still, it would be nice to see NBC put a tenth of the energy into covering the IOC’s very serious issues with corruption that it does into its heat-seeking-missile-like focus on painful personal stories and emotional payoffs.