Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflections on the Media: Winter Olympic Coverage 2010

12-28 February 2010

Whenever I think about American television coverage of the Olympics I can’t help but compare the coverage of the Olympics by NBC with the coverage of previous Olympics by another US television network, ABC. I grew up on ABC’s coverage of the Olympics. If memory is not betraying me here I recall that ABC, which made its name in sports broadcasting with Wide World of Sports, a US TV sports show that became an icon of American sports television without broadcasting any of the holy trinity of the American sports world baseball, basketball, and American football, had much broader coverage of the Olympics than NBC’s current coverage.

ABC’s coverage was not only much broader than NBC’s but it was also much more intelligent and much more incisive in my opinion. The reason for this is not hard to fathom: ABC’s commentators came largely from its Wide World of Sports franchise and they had cut their teeth on Olympic sports and so knew them backwards and forwards. Many of NBC’s commentators, on the other hand, came of age in the ever more parochial environment of American sports broadcasting where the only things considered worth covering and talking about are essentially baseball, basketball, and football. I give you Chris Collinsworth and Bob Costas. Finally, it is worth noting, given this new sports reporting environment, that it was Wide World that pioneered in live, global, and celebrity sports journalism, things that have become prominent in US and global sports reporting in its wake.

The changes in US television coverage of the Olympics is a product of a number of factors, the ever increasing impact of nationalism on Olympic coverage being amongst them. Current NBC coverage, beyond the ratings cow of figure skating, is centred on American Olympic sports celebrities like Lindsey Vonn, Lyndsey Jacobellis, Shaun White, Apolo Anton Ohno, and Shani Davis and their quest for Olympic gold. In such an environment other sports, including hockey, have been relegated to the ghetto of NBC owned cable channels like USA where only those with cable can watch them. Other platforms, like the internet, have been used only limitedly by NBC and its digital network Universal Sports. You can watch certain events live at Universal Sports and certain delayed events at NBC.com. And since geographic limitations have been placed on the internet those of us living in the States and with limited technological proficiency cannot watch Olympic coverage on CTV or the BBC. Let’s hear it for globalization.

The one somewhat bright spot on the American scene has been NBC’s Universal Sports. Universal Sports is an NBC owned digital over the air network (now a cable only network) available in some American markets. It has focused on commentary, recaps, behind the scenes, and analysis of the Olympics. Some of this coverage has been quite interesting and quite good. The report Universal Sports did on the mechanics and physics of curling was very good. The report they did on the advantages high tech ski team gear gave to US and Canadian skiers was very good. But there are limitations to Universal Sports coverage. No Olympic events in either live or delayed form are being shown whatsoever on the Universal Sports network. And Universal Sports commentators and analysts have been “infected” by American nationalism.

One of Universal Sport’s shows, Meet the Olympic Press, has been until recently an interesting if parochial attempt to do for Olympic Sports coverage what NBC’s Meet the Press, a long running news programme on NBC, does for “hard” news coverage. And sometimes it has done just this. At other times, particularly during the programme which aired after the Men’s Figure Skating competition, however, Meet the Olympic Press has become a medium for the expression of American nationalism. In the wake of the men’s figure skating competition and the controversies surrounding it, for example, the shows press commentators, all of them Americans, framed the event in the old tried and true Cold war narrative of good Americans and “nasty” Russians. Such a framing, of course, meant that they failed to even note that former Canadian and French male skaters have, along with the Russians, been quite critical of the outcome of the event. They also failed to note that this battle over scoring in men’s figure skating between the “artistic” and “jumping” crowd had begun well before the Olympics and was almost certainly an attempt by both sides to manipulate the scoring in their favour. The more figure skating changes the more it remains the same.

It wan't until two days after the men's skating final on Universal Sports Review and Preview programme that Americans circled the wagons and launched an empirical defence of Lysacek's victory with the help of the two former US male skaters Peter Gallagher and Paul Wiley. This circling of the wagons continued throughout the day. The Universal Sports Review and Preview Skating programme featured a chorus of Kristi Yamaguchi, Peter Gallagher, Dick Button, all Americans, all former figure skaters, and all defenders of the "artistic" or "dancing" faith, claiming that Lysacek won the event and expressed annoyance with the bad sportsmanship on the part of the Russians. All the while everyone on the panel ignored the fact that it isn't only the Russians who are critical of the men's figure skating scores. Earlier in he day Universal Sports did have someone on the network who was more critical of the scoring in the men's figure skating event, in this case a Russian sports commentator. Even then the other two commentators were Americans, one a former US men's figure skater, and, from one point of view, both American apologists. Why, one has to ask, was Elvis Stojko, the Canadian ex-skater who has been highly critical of the scoring of the men's final, not made an appearance on the Universal Sports network?

In this debate between "jumpers" and "dancers" one has to admit that both sides make some good points. The American commentators have a point: the scoring system has changed since 2006 and if Plushenko had done one more jump or one more element in the bonus part of the programme it is likely he would have won. But the "jumpers" have a point too: attempting or completing a quad should probably be worth more in points than it currently is. Ironically, many American commentators had been critical of figure skating scoring prior to the Men’s event concluding that it needed to be revised. In the wake of Lysacek’s victory, however, they seem to have become defenders of the current scoring system. In the wake of Lysacek's victory it is also clear that many of the members of the American press are like America's commentator atheletes circling the wagons around Lysacek in a display of good old fashioned American patriotism.

Not all of the American press is obsessed with the Olympics despite this relationship between the Olympics and nationalism. On ESPN Radio the Olympics seems largely an afterthought to its various commentators and even in its every twenty minutes sports headlines. US football, baseball, and basketball remain the almost every minute obsessions of ESPN Radio's commentators. Needless to say the folks at ESPN know what sports butter their bread. Presumably they also know that they and their parent company, Walt Disney, which also owns the ABC network, don't have the rights to the Olympic Games. News in the service of capitalist enterprise? Needless to say the ESPN obsession with the holy trinity of American sports--baseball, basketball, and football--itself is a reflection of American parochialism and American nationalism. The fact that the US really isn't competitive in the worlds games--football, rugby, and cricket--and that America's dominant sports aren't really played by the rest of the world feeds into this American navel gazing.

Canadian press coverage has been extensive and has also been nationalistic. The Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, CBC.ca, and Sports Talk Radio in Vancouver and Ottawa have focused on Team Canada Men's Hockey, Canadian athletes, and Canadian medal winners. But they have been nationalistic with a difference. They have also reported on events and medal winners from other countries including the United States.

The less said about British media coverage of the Olympics, one which played up the horrible weather and the death of a Georgian luger, the better. To put it succinctly the British press seems to have seen its mission as raining on Vancouver's and Canada's parade. What I will say about critical comments in the British press coverage is this: two of the fundamental flaws of journalism (and some academic disciplines as well) is its lack of history and its limitedly critical approach. Here is some history: Weather has historically been a problem at a number of Winter Games as anyone who recalls the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria and the 1968 Winter Games at Grenoble, France knows. Deaths have occurred in luge and in skiing during training for the Winter Olympic games as anyone familiar with the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck in 1964 knows. A British luger was killed during a training run at Innsbruck. Skiing and luge are inherently dangerous sports and its athletes seem to thrive on danger and the adrenilin rush as anyone who has studied these sports over the years knows. Rarely has a Winter Olympic Torch been accessible to human beings who aren't mountain climbers as anyone familiar with previous Olympics knows. Problems have occurred at previous Olympics as anyone familiar with the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta knows. Now that a Brit has actually won a gold medal perhaps British media coverage will begin to change. I, for one, am looking forward to extensive critical coverage in the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Sun on the controversy surrounding Amy Williams's helmet.

All this said some of the questions the British press and especially the BBC are asking valid questions. Is this mania among Olympics governing bodies and athletes for ever faster speeds and ever newer world records leading to a speed at any cost mentality? Why weren't the steel bars which the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hit covered? Why weren't the walls of the luge facility higher particularly at dangerous curves? Why is the Olympic Committee not forthcoming about these and other matters? Beyond these Olympic focused questions here are questions the BBC and Olympic Games spectators aren't asking but should be. One of these is this: are, we, we Olympic spectators, part of the problem because of our obsession with new world records?

Beyond nationalism there has been another rather ugly aspect to Olympics press coverage, its masculinist impulses and its homophobia. Two commentators on Vancouver's Team 1040 mused about the rather "unmasculine" qualities of American figure skater Johnny Weir's costumes. Two commentators on RDS, the French Canadian sports channel, said similar things about Weir's costumes, later apologising for their remarks, but went on to urge that Weir be gender tested. The debate between those viewing men's figure skating as an art or as a sport has also been gendered. Plushenko and Stojko assert that only the jumping version of men's figure skating is a sport while the "artistic" version is "dancing". Dancing and sport are almost certainly code words for non-manly. I think, by the way, that the reason Weir was scored lower than he should have been in the men's free skate was because of machinist ideologies as well.

Ah, the work of culture and ideology.

On a related topic, ideology also impacts how American Olympic commentators look at the medal count. American commentators, even over at sober NPR, have been raving about the American lead in medals. And the US does lead in medals if you look at the total raw numbers. What I find interesting about this tunnel vision is that at the high school and college level in the US sports competitions are broken up into divisions. There are divisions for big schools, mid-size schools, and small schools. In the playoffs big schools compete with big schools, mid-size schools with mid-size schools, small schools with small schools. What I find so interesting here is that all of this goes out the window when American commentators comment on the medal account. Apparently there is not even a hint of a thought as to whether it is fair to compare in the raw the US, a country of over 300 million citizens, with Norway, a nation with a population less than New York City. When looked at in terms of population size Norway’s achievement is even more impressive even when one realizes that geography, culture, and wealth are factors in Olympic success as well.

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