As has become Olympics tradition, NBC has spent every night of its primetime coverage unveiling the stories of top U.S. athletes like it’s selling a weepy drama about their lives. Figure skater Nathan Chen came to Beijing to banish bad memories of his last botched Olympics, the humiliating clip of which NBC will whip out at a moment’s notice to underline his plight. Biathlete Leif Nordgren had to meet his new daughter virtually, live on air, as he blinked back tears. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin is trying to mount a comeback through debilitating grief over the recent death of her father, whose grin always used to wait for her beyond the finish line. For NBC, these segments represent “heartwarming” tales of resilience and pride, especially if the athletes involved manage to beat the odds and land a medal. When they don’t, the dial turns to “heartbreaking” as the network zooms in even further on crestfallen faces to make sure the audience understands the depths of their devastation.
Emphasizing failures as much as victories isn’t a new phenomenon to NBC’s Olympics coverage, but it’s uncomfortable to witness every time. NBC spends so much time finding human interest stories at the Olympics, but when one of the athletes actually reveals just how human they are, the commentators fall all over themselves in shock.
While creating inspiring narratives is a mainstay of sports coverage (not to mention reality competition shows in general), there’s something uniquely frustrating about watching NBC, the sole U.S. broadcaster of the Olympics, milk American athletes for all they’re worth. After days of telling audiences about how much Shiffrin’s struggled since her dad’s death, watching her barely make it through a live Feb. 8 interview after her second failed event was genuinely crushing — especially as it became clear that NBC had no idea how to handle it.
“What are you still processing?” the slope-side interviewer asked Shiffrin as she sniffed through her mask. “I’m basically questioning everything about the last 15 years,” she replied. What’s more, she continued after a shaky breath, “there’s a lot more going on today than my little situation, but I feel really bad…for doing that.” Shiffrin and other spotlighted athletes like her know exactly how much time and effort NBC has put into promoting her. Realizing how many eyes are on her performances, and how the network’s pushing her to the forefront with all the bells and whistles at its disposal, only spikes the pressure even more. And what did Shiffrin get for her moment of honesty? A brief pause, before the interviewer finally released her with a jarringly chipper, “thanks for stopping by!”
During last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, NBC made overtures towards acknowledging the stress these athletes are under, though mostly because world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles forced their hand. With Biles speaking so openly about needing to step away from the weight of expectations lest they flatten her, NBC couldn’t sidestep the issue. Suddenly, its pundits were joined by experts and athletes like Michael Phelps, who’s spent much of his post-Olympics career urging fellow athletes to invest in their mental health. Suddenly, the reality of how lonely, isolating, and stressful being an Olympic athlete was too big to ignore. It was encouraging to see NBC take the issue seriously enough to devote precious airspace to it, if also rather disorienting given NBC’s own part in raising the stakes for athletes it chooses to highlight. Olympians like Biles, Phelps, Chen, and Shiffrin didn’t become famous out of nowhere. As much as their athletic prowess has rightfully earned them accolades, NBC’s overwhelming coverage propelled them to greater heights from which to fall. As the only network with the power to do so, it needs to more seriously reckon with its own role in this grueling process.
Since there’s no way that NBC would let go of its human interest stories, though, here’s a radical idea: Maybe, just maybe, there are other athletes outside the U.S. worth covering with some of the time NBC otherwise spends showing slow-mo videos of its prize few messing up their life’s work. The network’s fixation on American athletes is nothing new, but it’s still worth pointing out that its myopic approach both destabilizes people unlucky enough to live under its U.S.-centric microscope, and leaves other more compelling (and less casually cruel) stories on the table. When Shiffrin got disqualified from her the giant slalom race, for example, NBC quickly cut its live feed of the entire event from its linear primetime coverage and told viewers to switch to Peacock for the rest, making for a frustrating experience on several levels. For one, immediately dismissing this event once Shiffrin could no longer compete in it also immediately discounted every other athlete as unimportant. For another, the evening had already committed enough time to the event that cutting it off halfway through felt like an enormous tease. To top it all off, the eventual winner of the event, Sweden’s Sara Hector, battled her way back to the top after a horrific knee injury that almost ended her career — an uplifting sports arc as classic as they come. Since the American favorite had already flamed out, though, NBC barely paid her hard-won victory any mind.
The Olympics are full of stories like Hector’s, and NBC’s viewers are ready to be inspired by people outside this country both because the United States is home to so many immigrants with ties all over the world, and because good stories are good stories no matter where they come from. There’s a reason Olympics blockbusters like “Chariots of Fire” and “Cool Runnings” were such huge phenomena, or why “Ted Lasso” swept the Emmys, or why NBC itself has committed billions of dollars to being the U.S.’ sole broadcaster of the U.K.’s Premier League. There’s truly no need to exploit an athlete’s pain when there are so many other stories in every event just waiting to be told. It just would take more creativity and consideration than NBC, despite all its insistence otherwise, has so far proved itself capable of committing.
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