The mystery of why NBC ponies up most countries’ defense budgets for the right to broadcast the Olympics still evades me. I know what the answers are. The ratings are worth it, which means the ad rates make it worthwhile, and that those who tune in aren’t really interested in the results of various competitions. They’re there for the stories, which is why NBC has rarely given a flying fuck if these things air live when the games have been in East Asia the last three cycles now (Summer and Winter Games).
They’ve become almost farcical now, the video packages that come along with any coverage of an event. Here is a picture of this athlete as a child with their first hockey stick/skis/skates/hunting rifle. Here’s a long shot of the desolate town they grew up in, in which not one single person had a job after the mill closed and the neighbors hunted each other to keep warm, but man did they have snow. Here’s an interview with their parents, who drove said child at least 100 miles every day to the nearest training center/gulag. And now here’s their first coach, who will say something to the effect of, “Ryker’s/Mia’s talent was obvious from the first time they walked through the door. Also my wife left me.” Then it’s various other old pictures of competitions and interviews with other people they could locate from childhood and beyond. You see these in your sleep now. They’ve gotten about as campy as the ones you see on American Ninja Warrior, with only slightly less shots of parkouring practice.
Perhaps because NBC has realized how formulaic these have become, they push even farther to mine newer and more grabbing material. One wonders if there’s a line that’s been crossed. It doesn’t seem enough for them to follow the path to success and victory, but that they’d almost rather someone fall and fail to prove their compassion or something.
Mikaela Shiffrin skied out of her second competition yesterday, which was obviously a devastating moment. It left Shiffren inconsolable and inert on the side of the course for a long time, which NBC didn’t hesitate to keep their cameras zeroed in on for the entirety.
Let us be clear. Shiffrin will be fine. She already has gold medals. She has world championships. Thanks to her performance in the last Olympics, she has endorsements and a name she can still cash in on.
But at the same time, the Olympics act as the peak of most of these athletes’ careers, or at least their training arcs. Everything is geared to peak at The Games. It’s not just the luster of winning a gold medal, an opportunity for which only comes maybe once or twice a lifetime, but what that can mean. It’s these athletes’ only chance to get their name into the mainstream, for the most part, to make the money that most of their competitors won’t get. To make the money they’ve never dreamed of, and possibly set themselves up for after their athletic career.
That’s enough pressure, for sure. What isn’t helping is NBC coming in and exposing pretty much every facet of their lives to the public, putting even more pressure on them. NBC was only too happy to tell us about the death of Shiffrin’s father just about a year ago, which is about as personal as it gets. Or her dealing with her own mental health, which is under enough weight just by Shiffrin competing in the Olympics. Having the entire watching public know about it can only add to that. Shiffrin will certainly get asked about all of this as soon as it’s out there, some of which she admittedly has volunteered, but we’ve seen what having to answer these questions over and over can do. Ask Naomi Osaka.
So while NBC would have loved Shiffrin to win another gold, it is almost certainly no less happy about showing you the moments when it all became too much for someone like Shiffrin, whose competition hinges on intense grace and strength at high speeds where a missed flex or twitch at the fraction of a second ruins the whole thing. Yeah, loss is part of the Olympic story. Not everyone gets a medal, and despite the Games’ credo of participation being the most important thing, NBC has made it so people are less and less interested in that. NBC would tell us that they’re just telling the story that’s in front of them. Just like covering a police chase probably has producers with fingers crossed there will be a crash for future use. Given Shiffrin’s age, NBC already has the video stored of her sitting with her thoughts saved for Italy in four years.
And yet, with Shiffrin, with Simone Biles, with Osaka, with so many others, the question of just how responsible the media outlets are for the pressure that becomes too much is a valid one.
Shiffrin did all the post-race interviews. She didn’t hide. Maybe she didn’t think it was a problem. Athletes are conditioned to shrug it all off. Still, we have to wonder if we need all this. Then again, NBC would have about five hours of coverage over two weeks without the filler. It’s what that filler is turning into that should be examined.