What do you think, sports fans?

There’s something magical about the Olympics.  Perhaps there’s something intrinsically fascinating about internationalism.  Perhaps I’m simply susceptible to media manipulation.  Perhaps it has something to do with the combination of impossibly fit people and eye-catching competition wear (what there is of it).  I dunno.  But whatever ineffable factor makes it happen, for a fortnight every two years I go from being someone who couldn’t possibly care less about sports to someone who keeps the television on all the time and happily watches whatever events are playing.  (Seriously.  Not just the events featuring pulchritudinous dudes.  I happily watched women’s team archery and skeet shooting, which managed to be awesome even though the only evidence that anything had happened during the latter was a tiny puff of purple smoke whenever a target got obliterated.)

[Aside to Danny Boyle:  Man, I really tried to like those Opening Ceremonies.  I had lots of motivation to give you the benefit of the doubt.  One of your more obscure titles is among my favorite films.  My father is from England, and I’ve got an anglophile streak a mile wide.  And my cousin handled lots of the rigging for the show.  I tried!  But… I didn’t like it.  Even with my father and aunt on hand to explain what a lot of the obscure costumes meant, it just seemed like a steaming pile of WTF to me.  Sorry!]

Anyhow, the other night I was watching NBC’s prime time offerings, which included both the men’s synchronized platform diving and the men’s team gymnastics final, both of which I found very enjoyable on several levels.  But something else struck me a little less happily.  If you watched the program, then you know that the American men pretty much crashed and burned.  (I feel morally obligated to state that “crashed and burned” in this context means “performed slightly less awesomely than the competition at feats of athleticism that would have left Russell a whimpering pile of broken bones.”)  At one point, John Orozco totally botched the dismount from the vault.  There was a similar moment when the heavily-favored British divers had a notably bad dive (read: I was actually able to spot that it hadn’t gone well), plunging them in the standings and costing them a medal.  And after both of these moments the cameras got right up into the athletes’ faces as they were dealing with what must have been a crushing amount of disappointment.  I’m 100% sure that Orozco was holding back tears at one point, which was itself a herculean task under the circumstances.

To me, that seems cruel.  I realize 1) that these people must surely know the degree of scrutiny they will receive during competition and the time surrounding it, 2) that these people stand to become very (if briefly) famous, with resultant increased prosperity, and are therefore actually seeking much of this attention, and 3) contemporary American fame is nothing if not cruel to just about everyone who achieves it.  However, both Orozco and Tom Daley (the British diver who lost out on a medal) are still just teenagers, and while the latter is already famous in the UK the former was totally obscure to the American people until very recently.  Furthermore, even an Olympic superstar like Michael Phelps fades into the background between Games.  They seem more like regular people than celebrities to me.  And isn’t one of the happy tales we tell about the Olympics that they help us celebrate the best in each other?  Pinning the poor kids under the eye of the camera while they grapple with devastating emotion doesn’t seem consistent with that.

Or do I just not know sports culture?  Are these athletes more inured to this kind of extreme close-up than I would understand as a relative stranger to that world?  Those of you who are wise about such things, fill me in.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. There are the stories that NBC tells us for the sake of creating a narrative. There is then what is really happening. It is best to ignore the narrative structure – can you watch with q-tips plunged deeply into both ears perhaps? Simply watch the performances themselves. Alternately, recognize that although those athletes are going through pain at their own missteps, there are worse scenarios, like that of the South Korean fencer…fencist…fencerist who was simply robbed of her spot in her event’s Gold Medal match because of a timing snafu and a subsequently horrible ruling. Those sorts of things don’t, I think, get much coverage on American television, because they have the audacity to not involve American athletes.

    • “There are the stories that NBC tells us for the sake of creating a narrative.”

      Sports journalism seems increasingly focused on narrative. I wonder how much of this has to do with justifying their own existence. Anyone can SHOW you the game. But not everyone can tell you just how important it is and why its important and why you must absolutely watch NBC because otherwise you’d be in the dark and don’t you want to know just how important what is happening is and how would you know if we didn’t tell you and ohbytheway the event that we’re covering happens to be the most whateverest thing ever and we were there to cover it which makes us the most importantest media members ever so it is really important that you listen to us make such a big deal about all of this because if we simply presented it as what it is you’d realize we were overpaid wastes of space and WE CAN’T HAVE THAT, CAN WE?!?!?!

      • I just thank the gods that the human interest storytelling is no longer so dominant. For a couple of Olympics, the lengthy background features on the athletes totally overwhelmed presentation of actual sporting events, and all we got was snippets of this one, a bit of that one, and the last 30 second of another one. It was horrible.

        And thank god for the Olympic app that allows me to watch events in real-time after the fact, and usually without much commentary. Because as it turns out those announcers mostly are overpaid wastes of space. If they would have announcers content just to give factual updates, and keep quiet the other 80% of the time, I’d be in heaven.

  2. The athletes will likely be used to it since intense scrutiny is part of sports. The higher you go the more attention people will pay. Is that hard: yes. There are certainly athletes who can’t handle the pressure and crash out along the way. The extreme close up is intense and actually to close for me personally, but that is nothing compared to the pressure of actually having to perform for all the world in the Olympics.

    • These particular athletes though? They’re not usually scrutinized, as we usually don’t care about them. I still have no idea who America’s best archer is, even if I did watch him choke against Italy last weekend.

      • Well certainly gymnasts expect to be under a Hubble sized scope. In the smaller sports this will be there biggest stage but in their own sporting world there can still be immense pressure. Some sports that americans don’t care about nor do they show much of are still big deals in some places. I’m a big fan of cross country skiing. Do they show much of that in the winter O’s. Not much at all. But in some countries, mostly in Northern Europe xc skiing is mega huge. Our athletes will have been under tremendous pressure when they competed in Norway even if nobody in the US knows squat.

        • You are certainly correct: gymnasts, swimmers, and some of the track and field each get intense (unreasonable?) levels of scrutiny. I assume that’s both because of interest and marketing potential for the best of the best.

          But just because other parts of the globe appreciate some of the sports that our own athletes engage in, that doesn’t add extra to the challenge for them, does it? Maybe it does. I’m just struggling with the idea of an American attempting to medal in Judo struggling that much more because Judo is huge in in various Asian nations, for example. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen; it just hadn’t dawned on me before.

  3. Do you remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports? I believe the intro to that is where they introduced the idea of “The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat” with the latter part of the phrase coupled with some poor guy tumbling down a ski slope. There are strange visceral feelings that we derive from watching folks struggle. For a long time, these feelings seemed to be sympathetic toward the athlete. Seeing them fail showed us their human side. These were folks who seemed so talented that failure was not an option. But just like us, they were less-than-perfect. They took missteps, they cracked under the pressure, they slipped and fell. It made them more identifiable. This, I’d argue, is a good thing in the aggregate. We watch sports to see the human condition at its extremes.

    Unfortunately, we have shifted more towards schadenfreude. Folks nowadays often seem to revel in the struggles of others. “Yea, he’s a world class athlete… something I’m not… but he’s not perfect… HA!” Sports media is a driving force behind this, as media members have become stars in their own right and often seem to think they are battling the athletes they cover for center stage. If they can knock the athlete a peg, they just might look that much more dandy. I can’t say that this is necessarily the explicit motivation for NBC’s interviewing athletes during these moments, but they are likely swept up in the tide.

    Personally, I think there is value to SHOW the athletes during moments of struggle. I don’t think we need to shove a microphone in their phase. Seeing the Russian women’s gymnastic team react to their struggles was powerful and moving. If those girls had been forced to give interviews through tears before the medal results were even officially announced, it would have been rubbernecking. And very uncomfortable. So, yea, I think showing the athletes (ideally using a zoom lens so you’re not shoving the camera up their nose) during struggles is okay, so long as the coverage of them does not outweigh the coverage of those who rose to victory. But I would appreciate a moratorium on interviewing them in the immediate aftermath of their struggle, something they should be given a bit of time to come to grips with and process. Not only is it more respectful, but you’ll get a better interview. And while we’re at it, can we stop interviewing athletes who are still out of breath from their event? What the fish is up with that? It would seem like ‘Interviewing people capable of talking’ would be a part of Journalism 101. But what do I know?

    • The “Agony of Defeat” guy was Vinko Bogataj, a Yugoslav (now Serbian) skiier. And I think the follow-up story in the linked video is a good example of what you’re talking about — there is value in seeing not only the sport well-executed, but also value in seeing how a slight mistake can make a dramatic difference and how a person recovers from it. Mr. Bogataj looked like he made for himself a nice family and a nice life and he never stopped being involved in ski-jumping despite being the “Agony of Defeat” guy.

      • Beat me to it. I love Vinko, I vividly remember both the crash and that follow up video you link to, Burt.

      • Thanks for the context, Burt.

        If Vinko were to do his thing nowadays, Joe Buck would tap dance around his prone body telling everyone just how spectacularly agonizing his whole life will be from this point forward.

  4. One of the things I found particularly horrible was after Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify in the all-around, and she was clearly just destroyed, so they paid her the courtesy of not interviewing her until she had worked through, some emotions and calmed down, but they also filmed her the entire time she was crying.

    • One of the things that sucks about the media is how they actually made me almost enjoy Wieber’s failure, because they had built her up so much, and focused so much on her, to the detriment of others on the team. And then we had all the hoopla about how horrible the rule limiting each country to two individuals for the finals was unfair because it kept Jordyn Wieber out, with never a recognition of the fact that had Wieber got in the rule would have kept Aly Raisman out of the final. That would only have been a shame, but because it was media darling Wieber it was a global crisis. (And preciously little recognition given to the U.S. having backed the rule originally.)

      It’s not Wieber’s fault, and I do in fact feel bad about being happy Raisman made the final instead of her. But the fishing sports media… Here’s a perfect example: “Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, and the rest of the Fab Five…” Fab, but not fab enough to get their names listed even after Raisman bested Wieber.

      It reminds me of the original Gilligan’s Island theme song, “…the movie star, and the rest

  5. Semi-off topic; today’s coverage here in Denmark is all about the 4 female badminton teams which have been thrown out of the Olympics for actively trying to lose their games to get a better bracket. Indonesia, 2X South Korea and China were the ones tossed – they’re currently appealing the decision.

    I hope they don’t win their appeal – but at the same time I’m wondering how much coverage they’re going to get over the rest of the games.

    • I am in love with this badminton story. It’s a madcap tale involving international intrigue, the geopolitical rise of Asia, accountability in sports, and the value of incentives. All at once! You could write a dissertation about it!

      • Yeah – it’s news here in DK because it was a Danish referee that warned the Chinese team to stop serving into the net.

        They were deliberately manipulating the brackets so they wouldn’t play other Chinese. I hope none of them win their appeal – and that the brackets are redesigned for future play so that this type of behavior is impossible.

        • I’m not sure what I think about the badminton story…those pairs were still trying to win, they were just thinking strategically about the tournament as a whole, at the expense of a single match. To me, it’s equivalent to a baseball pitcher intentionally walking a home run hitter…

          • Or a basketball team tanking the last few meaningless games to get a better draft pick.

            The distinction, I think, is that people have paid (in money or time) to see game X. If your strategy doesn’t pay off until a later game, you’ve cheated them.

          • This is mostly my view too; it’s just a terrible rules system if you can have entire throw-away games at the *beginning* of a tourney or season vice the end.

          • Not quite, IMO

            You can walk a home run hitter without deliberately losing the game.

            They were setting out to throw the game. It’s more akin to the Black Sox Scandal. They (like the offending Black Sox) should be banned from the sport.

          • But it’s nothing like the Black Sox, either. They lost games for a reward outside the system (payoffs from gamblers.) These women were throwing matches for an eventual reward within the system (a medal).

          • How is this so different than a runner or swimmer doing just enough to make a semi-final heat? It is expected. It happens all the time. They do it to conserve energy, they do it to confuse the competition. No one seems to question that even though everyone watching knows they can do better. Preliminaries are never going to show the best of the best. I’m curious as to what point is it acceptable and what point isn’t it?

          • They were also throwing the game (the Chinese team) so they wouldn’t have to play against the other Chinese team – this way they could take both the Gold and Silver as opposed to one of the Chinese teams being out of the tournament.

            I disagree that it’s like a runner doing just enough to win a heat – after all, they DID win. They didn’t set out to come in 4th or 5th or deliberately come in last.

  6. Badminton cheating is pretty sexy (cheating? in the Olympics?), but for me, the Shin Lam protest is the most dramatic so far from these Olympics. First of all, what a bizarre rule that a fencer cannot leave the piste (a word I did not know 48 hours ago) while protesting a decision. And the enduring photo seems to be of her crying, which is a shame, because she did not spend forty-five minutes crying and anyone would be upset after having their life’s goal taken from them by a decision they knew in their hearts was wrong. I think the right photo is of her standing in righteous defiance while waiting for the judges to get their acts together.

    • Thanks for that link. This one is such an obvious injustice I can’t even wrap my mind around the decision. For god’s sake, if you don’t want to just go back and time the video to figure out when the match actually ended, then replay the final freaking second with a working clock!

      This is the kind of “we don’t have a rule for that” moment that will surely result in having a rule for that.

    • what a bizarre rule that a fencer cannot leave the piste

      Never appeal to the judges while you’re piste off.

  7. Doc, I generally feel the way you do about this but it’s tempered somewhat by a realization that for a good number of these guys and gals, they may not even realize (or care) that the camera is there.

    You don’t get to be that good at *anything* without a lot of internalization. Coping with failure is probably entirely dominated by the internal will. With the team sports there is certainly an aspect of, “Shoot, I left the *team* out on the wind”, but I’m guessing that the athletes are busy bashing their own internal process and don’t really give two bananas about what is going on in the external world. I mean, watch the post-event interviews with the winners, and then watch them interviewed a couple of days later by Diane Sawyer or somebody. It’s not just the interviewer-skill difference that explains their presence.

    I think most of the time they don’t even really register that there’s an outside world, there, that they’re trying to communicate with – at least, not right after the event.

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