More than 200 countries competed in the last month’s Rio Olympics, including first time participants Kosovo and South Sudan, and the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team. Over 11,000 of the world’s best athletes competed in nearly 40 sports and hundreds of events.
The feats, shortcomings, tumbles, cheers, heartwarming and heartbreaking circumstances, even medals are (seemingly) innumerable— yet for all the diverse plot lines, visuals, backstories and oddities, American viewers are forced to trust one source—and only source—to tell the story of the entire Olympic games. That source is NBC, the same network that airs the popular soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” Sadly, the uncanny ability of “Days” to juggle several plot lines at once failed to carry over to NBC’s Olympic coverage, which fell devastatingly flat when it came to not only editing and commentary, but even the extent of events aired.
My friend’s mom was especially distraught that she never saw any windsurfing footage, though there were dozens of other events that were shorted. In an old interview with Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfield explains a bit he tells about a man he once saw on TV who caught a bullet between his teeth, and how later he didn’t even remember the guy’s name. He says something like, “If he knew I didn’t remember his name he’d be like ‘What do I have to do?? Catch a cannonball in the eye?’” And I feel like that’s how most non-American Olympic athletes would feel if they saw NBC’s coverage.
John Oliver roasted the NBC hosts’ Opening Ceremony commentary —the event that was delayed in the States but aired live everywhere else— by mocking their focus on the tragic events in countries such as Turkey, France and Sudan (which they simply referred to as a “troubled nation”). The ignorance is appalling, but more so the timing is inappropriate.
The Opening Ceremony is a time for all the participating countries to come together before competition places them on different pedestals, not a time to call out the countries’ hardships. And if it were, I didn’t hear anyone saying, “And the United States, a country on the verge of electing a candidate whose biggest supporter is that guy from ‘Duck Dynasty’.”
For a laundry list of the shortcomings in NBC’s commentary, all you need do is type “NBC Olympic coverage” into Google and autofill will take care of the rest. From the sexism of crediting Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s success to her husband/coach (What’s that? Her name doesn’t ring a bell? Hm, maybe because she’s not American— or because NBC commentator Dan Hicks neglected to mention her name when he praised her husband), to Opening Ceremony commentator Hoda Kotb’s juvenile Djibouti joke (the joke was literally just the name of the African nation and its implied semblance to a certain part of human anatomy, very high brow humor), NBC’s hosts seemed more like real-life internet trolls than adults deserving of the honor to comment on the globe’s premier athletes.
I won’t go any further into how often the commentary sucked, because unlike “Days of Our Lives” (currently in its 50th season), I know when to stop. A less discussed aspect of America’s Olympic coverage, is —and I don’t at all say this unpatriotically— how American it was. Yeah, America was lucky enough to be the birthplace of Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, but at times NBC’s patriotic propaganda was so heavy-handed I wondered if they realized that the Olympics is in fact a global event (unlike the World Series, which inaccurately suggests that countries besides America participate).
Don’t get me wrong—the US did perform incredibly. Phelps continued to break records with his freakish wingspan and Ryan Lochte shocked with not only with his platinum blonde-turned-chlorine-green hair, but his impressive stroke. Simone Biles coined “The Biles” and won Zac Efron’s heart (a gold medal of its own), Katie Ledecky gave me my biggest friend crush to date and Simone Manuel personified Black Girl Magic.
These feats can’t be refuted. But. What about the other ones? I tuned into the Olympics on several different occasions, but seldom came across anything besides swimming and gymnastics. Sometimes some soccer or volleyball, definitely some track and once a few minutes of table tennis. In table tennis, China won the most golds; the US didn’t compete. In sailing events (including windsurfing), the US came in tenth place while Great Britain took home three gold medals. I can’t even find team USA in the Rio handball stats so I’m thinking they didn’t qualify.
But in gymnastics the US came in a far first place with 12 medals, Great Britain in second with six. And in swimming the Team USA won 33 medals, more than triple Australia’s second place total. So it all depends on the story you choose to tell.
NBC clearly chose to narrate a story of astounding American success, with (sometimes degrading) footnotes regarding other countries. No, even a media giant can’t change the stats, but surely Russian coverage didn’t show so many shots of Ally Raisman’s parents watching her routines as if they were riding a roller coaster . Even that insane shot of Katie Ledecky where her lead is so large she looks as if she’s alone in the pool—even that is a choice. The lead was remarkable, but a different camera angle would have shown her competition in the far distance.
I’m not suggesting that every country should cover the Olympics the exact same way. A nationalistic slant is assumed in an event where the national anthems of gold medalists are piped throughout the stadium. But NBC’s treatment of the Olympics as some American institution is ridiculous and inaccurate, considering the ancient Greek tradition was born centuries before America’s founding fathers were even conceived.
Viewers should keep in mind Chimamanda Adichie’s “the dangers of a single story,” or if you’re more into YouTube than TedTalks, Twenty One Pilots’ “We don’t believe what’s on TV, because it’s what we want to see” is also a succinct warning. One media outlet’s narrative is incapable of representing a collection of events as huge as the Olympics at its best, and NBC doesn’t even place. Until the network ups its Olympic game, NBC should stick to airing soap operas.