Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Vancouver Winter Olympics: Afterthoughts

During the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, I sat over lunch with a colleague, an economist. He had some derision to get off his chest one day about the coverage of the games. Why, he asked, should we have to put up with those silly, sentimental profiles of athletes, "up close and personal," referring to the moniker ABC gave this sort of story back in the days of Jim McKay. He wanted to see the sports, period; forget about the contrived melodrama.

One can agree with my cantankerous colleague on one point. The networks need to avoid contrivance in such stories. NBC has, in several ways, improved the genre of athlete profile, and did a better job in Vancouver than in Utah eight years ago, where they probably got themselves more entangled in the pairs figure-skating controversy than they would now consider seemly.

This year, for example, they handled Evgeny Plushenko's temper-tantrum over Evan Lysacek's victory in men's figure-skating more adroitly. One had a clear choice to make between the pro-Plushenko arguments of former Olympians Sasha Cohen and Elvis Stojko--Plushenko did a quadruple jump, the quad represents the future of men's figure-skating, Lysacek, who has performed a quad but stayed away from it because of a stress-fracture in his landing foot, did not insert one into his program as he considered doing, therefore, Plushenko wins--and the pro-Lysacek arguments of Scott Hamilton and Dick Button, admittedly with Lysacek in the room.

Did they mount a campaign for Lysacek? Clearly the Costas interview with Lysacek, Scott Hamilton and Dick Button enthroned him by inclusion in the company of two of our greatest Olympic figure-skating champions. If one listened carefully, however, and considered the inclusion of Stojko's and Cohen's opinions in a separate interview aired on one of Mary Carillo's late night segments, the answer seems no.

They mounted, instead, a hearty defense for the new scoring system, which Plushenko disdained to exploit, whereas Lysacek exploited it to the hilt, while giving both camps their due. The tempest came down to who skated more intelligently and, as Hamilton put it somewhat archly but in his gentle way, who had skated and trained harder and longer, Plushenko having returned to competitive skating only six months ago after a three-and-a-half year absence, compared with Lysacek's legendarily obsessive training regimen. The in-rink commentary team, which also included Hamilton, made another point. In the scoring, Lysacek and Plushenko tied on artistic merit; Lysacek won on technical merit. Translation: he skated better, as the new scoring system defines it, including a reward for more and difficult jumps deeper into the program, a scoring opportunity Plushenko foreswore.

If anything, though, NBC did themselves most proud with a series of stories--mind that word--of a more personal nature, done particularly in one case with admirable tact, as some in the media have observed. The production staff had a terrible decision to make before the games even got underway when a luger from the Republic of Georgia died in a practice run on the single most controversial facility of the games, the sledding hill. Apparently they ran the tape of his accident once, and then, with a carefully worded statement from Bob Costas, elected not to show it any longer. One can see it on Youtube; gruesome only begins to describe the sight of a man flying in midair at 90+ mph into a steel upright, his sled skittering along on the ice behind him.

Another tragedy came a week later. A French-Canadian figure skater, Joannie Rochette, lost her mother to an out-of-the-blue heart attack. Two days later she had to skate her short-program. As has been noted elsewhere, rather than try to get within the Rochette circle, Costas interviewed NBC's expert long-track speed-skating commentator, Dan Jansen, who lost his sister on the day of a race in which he was favored to win gold. He didn't. As he described it to Costas, the morning Jane died he conferred with his family about whether he should skate. They all agreed that Jane would have felt terrible about becoming the reason Dan didn't compete. Not so simple, though. Suddenly, after days of great practices, he didn't have his legs. He fell in a turn early in his first heat, then did the same thing in another race, and had a disastrous Olympics. Six years later he recuperated all that with a brilliant games.

Jansen sent Rochette an email, not sure whether she knew his name--she did, as it turns out--urging her to skate, to put all her heart into it, and to know that her mother would want that of her and for her. NBC let her alone from then on, until after her perfect skate in the long program that secured her the bronze medal. For this observer, Costas' studio interview with Rochette constituted one of NBC's best moments, and one of his. A very good interviewer, he asked her questions that gave her scope to describe her emotions, her mother's role in her life, her worries about her father. She talked about how, in fact, she'd heard Dan Jansen speak about coping with loss, and another speaker on the same subject, both times sure it would never happen to her. By that point, she'd had time to collect herself, time to be articulate, graceful, humble--herself. That interview completed the story elegantly and respectfully.

So many stories. Hannah Kearney in moguls, a delightful personality unknown to all but moguls maniacs, among which do not count me, though I loved the competition. Alex Bilodeaux, another moguls skier, with his own story--Frederic, his older brother who has a severe case of cerebral palsy--Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ato Ohno, Bode Miller, the men's hockey team, Steve Holcomb, who came back from blindness to drive the gold-medal sled in four-man bobsled, the men's Nordic Combined team. A glut of great performances and gutty individuals.

Appealing as some of the major figures were, Shaun White particularly, some of them did not handle themselves as well, but arguably the network shared some blame. NBC got a little too close a couple of times when they should have given the athletes and their coaches more space. Julia Mancuso handled her rivalry with Lindsey Vonn badly, but she had the right not to be filmed crying at the start-house after a course official stopped her in the middle of a run because Vonn had fallen in front of her and hadn't gotten off the course yet on a day of bad weather and compressed schedules. Let her cry in private, and let Shaun White's coach pump him up with bed-and-bath language without a sound boom within reach. They already do amazing things on a very public stage, give them a little room to let disappointment out, and give the coaches the chance to say something more inspiring than "Win one for the Gipper." Ron Wilson had the privacy of the men's hockey team's locker room, just as Tim Johnson had the women's team's locker room to sprinkle whatever salt he needed. A halfpipe coach deserves at least the illusion of same.

Hannah Kearney flopped at Torino; she flew to gold at Vancouver. Costas, in a studio interview, let this very bright, articulate, bubbly personality have her stage. Disappointment to training to success, and the obstinacy of the training to achieve success. They did a better job than I remember a network doing before of emphasizing the athletes' training, though this may be unfair to earlier production teams. We saw Apolo Ohno running up loose-dirt banks, Shaun White doing tricks into huge containers of foam blocks, learned of Evan Lysacek's unheard-of insistence on skating his long program every day in practice. Stories of persistence, stories of grace, and, unfortunately, a couple of stories of childish petulance.

Stories connect us. Well-told, they give us insight into what these athletes have done and how, and against what odds. The network hedged their bets and had a few in the can they might have saved--one got a little tired of the over-exposure of Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, and Apolo Ohno--but they showed their best lights when they had to improvise and rise to an occasion. Though it took them a little time to get the luge story right, they handled the figure-skating tragedy-cum-triumph with aplomb. The Olympics, after all, aim to bring not only the athletes together, but that part of the world--I doubt they have tv's in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, but who knows--that can watch them, as well. Great performances on snow and ice connect us, certainly, but emotions do, as well. Do not count me among the Olympics "up close and personal" curmudgeons. I will be ready when they converge on Sochi in four years to ski, skate, sled, jump, curl, face off, and shoot. Meantime, there's London in 2012.

1 comment:

  1. All very compelling stories, but you missed my personal favorite... that of Slovenian nordic skier Petra Majdic. Literally minutes before her race, as she was warming up, she hit an icy patch on the course and fell. Not just fell, but fell off a ledge, and down an estimated 3-4m embankment landing on either a rock or against a tree. No one is certain. All that is known, is that with a punctured lung, and 4 broken ribs, this Olympian managed to find a way to race, not one, two or even three races that day. No, she had to race 4 times over a 1.4km course at an all out sprint. What'd she receive for her troubles?? A bronze medal. She defines Olympic spirit to me...