If you have a full-time job, no privacy at work, and/or a boss who cares about productivity, you probably didn't spend two hours in the middle of the day, like I did, watching the women's all-around Olympic gymnastics final. This means that you get to see it tonight on NBC, with routines sprinkled between the hours of 8 p.m. and 12 a.m. as Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, and everyman Al Trautwig pretend that they are actually commenting live.
It really sucks to be you, because NBC's gymnastics coverage is the worst. NBC has been taking a drubbing due to its opening ceremony editing choices, "virtual live" primetime broadcasts, and accidental spoilers. But all of you Johnny-come-latelies need to get in line—gymnastics fans have hated NBC forever.
The Peacock network has had a virtual monopoly on gymnastics coverage in the States for years—not just the Olympics, but nationals, world championships, and the American Cup. If you want to watch gymnastics in the United States, you must do it through NBC's prism.
Gymnastics coverage doesn't have to be stupid. Back in the early to mid '90s, ABC had the rights to the world championships. Former gymnasts Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson-Clark nimbly guided viewers through the competition without putting down foreign competitors or using hyperbolic language to heighten the drama. Even the fluff pieces were adorable, like the one from the 1993 World Championships where Conner tried to keep pace working out with a 15-year-old Kerri Strug.
NBC, by contrast, produced fluff pieces that made Deva and Round Lake, the Romanian and Russian team training centers, look like Dickensian orphanages where families abandoned their athletically gifted children—while showing America's Dominique Moceanu playing on a seesaw. (Seriously, what 14-year-old do you know still plays on a seesaw?)
As current Olympic viewers are realizing, NBC rarely shows foreign athletes unless they are directly in competition with the U.S. During the women's team finals, the network showed few Chinese and Romanian routines, despite the fact that those two were in a heated contest for the bronze. Instead, we got endless shots of the U.S. girls and coaches on the sidelines talking, and two airings of the same exact video montage featuring poses from the five member squad—in case didn't realize just how photogenic this team is or you didn't catch their first names on the first try.
While I enjoy seeing teenage girls talk amongst themselves as much the next person does, it would've been nice if NBC had used the time to show some other countries doing gymnastics. If you really want to savor Team USA's camaraderie, just follow the gang on Twitter. They tweet a lot. The Olympics shouldn't look like a domestic meet.
As we've noted, NBC didn't show the floor routine of Ksenia Afanasyeva, the defending world champion on the apparatus, who crashed to her knees on her final tumbling pass—the moment that basically sealed the American women's first team gold medal in 16 years. Showing Russians unhappy and in tears is one of NBC's favorite pastimes, but seeing Afanasyeva stumble would've eliminated any sort of faux suspense that remained after Anastasia Grishina's enormous error.
Perhaps people would have tuned out the instant they knew the gold was secure. (Or maybe they could have turned on their computers, iPads, iPhones or any other internet-enabled device, learned the results that had been finalized hours earlier, and not watched at all.) Unfortunately for the viewers, in exchange for that slightly extended plot line, they were denied the opportunity to see one of the best choreographed and performed routines of the Games (at least until the fall at the very end).
Strangely enough, NBC also failed to show Afanasyeva's lovely beam routine from the previous rotation, which had been an important hit for the Russians after two shaky performances. Not only would the audience have appreciated seeing the Russian veteran's grace, it would have greatly added drama to the proceedings to the Americans' chief rivals nail a set.
NBC's announcing trio is supposedly doing all of the commentary live at the arena, but that's impossible to believe. At least some of it seems to have been recorded after the fact. Case in point: their coverage of the women's preliminary, in which the big story turned out to be world champion Jordyn Wieber's failure to qualify for the all-around competition. I watched the live webcast, with 1996 gold medalist Shannon Miller doing the commentary. Miller was informative and cogent throughout, but she barely mentioned the race to qualify for the all-around until the very end—when it suddenly looked like Wieber might lose out.
Yet when I watched the tape-delayed network telecast later that night, Tim and Elfi mentioned the possibility of Wieber missing the final at least half a dozen times. Either they're spectacularly prescient or they're the gymnastics-commentary version of the Terminator—sent from the future to revise the past.
The NBC trio is also unusually cruel to the foreign competitors. Back in March, I wrote about the American Cup—called the "Scam" Cup by fans for its predictably red, white, and blue first-place finishes—and noted that when Great Britain's Rebecca Tunney had three falls on beam, the trio didn't stop at calling her routine "disastrous." They wondered aloud whether the she would ever be able to mentally recover from this set, meanly suggesting she seek the counseling of Dr. Phil.
During Olympic prelims, when talking about the British girls, Schlegel mentioned that routine yet again as if it's the only piece of gymnastics she's seen Tunney do. Tunney is actually quite good at bars, and despite a rocky meet at Scam—one of her first as a senior gymnast—she has competed well for Great Britain all year. Maybe it was the only performance Schlegel had seen the Brit do. Perhaps she is contractually prohibited from watching competitions not broadcast on NBC.
This Games, the NBC crew has decided to tar the Russians as "divas," as though it's a bad thing. It's not as if the Russians are demanding the beam be made wider for them or that their favorite brand of chalk be stocked on the podium. Yet before 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina started her uneven bar routine during team finals, Al asked Tim, "Have you seen any diva moments?"
By all accounts that aren't from NBC, the Russians have had some difficult practices, struggling with skills and routines. As a result, they've expressed frustration to their coaches. (Alexander Alexandrov, the Russian coach, seems more amused or bemused than upset by this.) Showing how you feel in practice and competition? Oh, the horror! Someone alert Mariah Carey that a bunch of Russian gymnast are zeroing in on her diva throne.
Personally, I root hard for the U.S. team. So why care that the Russians and others are unfairly portrayed by NBC?
It's because gymnastics is a particularly international sport. If you're a fan of basketball, you don't have to look outside of the United States for viewing and competition opportunities. With gymnastics and other Olympics sports, the domestic field is insufficient. There are only a couple of major national meets a year.
So to understand the sport, gymnastics fans have to be knowledgeable of and familiar with what's going on abroad. This tends to breed an appreciation for other countries' gymnasts. Even if you don't want them to win, you don't want to see them maligned, treated as cartoons, or ignored.
This could be too cruel. Maybe, after years and years and years in the broadcast both, the NBC trio is merely suffering from commentating fatigue. They are tired, traumatized (especially after seeing the Italian Vanessa Ferrari's leotards) and drained. They can't think of anything else to say aside from, "Orozco is from the Bronx," "The Russians are divas," and "She has the look international judges love."
Whether they're weary or just incompetent, it's long past time for a switch. How about Shannon Miller? Thus far she has done a wonderful job narrating the live feed from the O2 Arena—thoroughly enjoyable and informative, and critical without being mean or vicious. When competitors make mistakes, she doesn't merely say, "That's bad," but explains precisely what went wrong. She never resorts to dramatic hyperbole, saying things like "This is desperation time," as Al Trautwig said last night after Danell Leyva's mistakes in the all-around.
And Miller has stayed classy throughout. Pressed today by her co-commentator about how it must feel to win an Olympic gold medal, as the winner stood atop the podium, Miller, a silver medalist in the all-around in 1992, said that she couldn't imagine what it felt like.
Back then, the posters that lined the Olympic trials arena read "It's Miller Time," signaling the passing of the torch from world champion Kim Zmeskal to trials winner Shannon Miller. If NBC cared about gymnastics viewers, it would make primetime Miller Time.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.