The Design Observer Group

Posted 07.31.12

Alexandra Lange

The Critical Olympics

Why do we watch the Olympics? For the down-to-the-touchpad finishes? For the sob stories? For the collective experience? For the uniforms? I would argue all of the above, and one more thing: for the chance to learn something new. Every four years, I discover a sport I've never seen before, or fall in love again with a sport I haven't thought about since the last Olympics.

When I was a child we taped the Olympics schedule cut from the newspaper on my parent's bedroom door. I would study it, looking for the gymnastics and swimming and track and field. We watched TV on weeknights together, a special treat. I learned about false starts and the butterfly stroke, how to stick a dismount and the many fascinating shapes the human body can take. I developed a strong opinion that national team unforms should refer to the colors or motifs of their country's flag.

Would this image be as iconic if she were wearing bubblegum pink with sparkles?

Watching the women's gymnastics qualifying round on NBC on Sunday night, I kept waiting for that childhood thrill to kick in. [On Tuesday, the American women won the gold medal in the team final.] Here I was, watching again as the gymnasts chalked their hands and took deep breaths, bounced off the board and up to the apparatus. I was waiting to be absorbed into their narrative, the flow of up and down, catch and release on bar and beam. But it didn't happen. What I saw instead was work. This and then that and then the next thing. Check. Not falling on this move, not falling on the next move. Not taking that hop. I wasn't as stressed out as Aly Raisman's parents, in this viral video, but I certainly felt their pain.

Or at least, that's what I think I saw. The NBC commentators didn't tell me a thing about what was on screen. They just talked about the girls. Their personalites. Their friendships. How they were only 15. They didn't tell me the names of any of the skills, why one was harder than another, why one routine was harder than another. I didn't learn anything. And I didn't fall in love all over again.

There's been much Twitter chatter, much of it hashtagged #NBCfail, about the network's lack of live coverage, lame commentary, and America-philia. This also happens every Olympics. But the other options, livestreaming, Twitter commentary, international blogs and papers at our fingertips, has put the network way of covering sports in relief. We are all media critics now. And, it struck me, what the best sports commentary does is much like the role of criticism: it makes you care about the previously abstract.

To enjoy a properly written review, you don't have to agree with the reviewer, much less have seen the film. or building, or performance in question. What the reviewer is telling you is what she, the expert is seeing, so that you follow in her footsteps and have a separate, guided experience. I have no love for golf, though I watched it with my father as a child, and I always felt the CBS announcers guided you through it. What's the problem? What's the solution? What's next? Even without knowledge, a narrative unfolded. Personalities asserted themselves through voice. My father also watched football, so I learned to anticipate John Madden's growl, his indecipherable chalk talks. My Olympics experience had all this, and the thrill of competition too. Sunday night it felt leached.

The Olympic gymnastics venue (via AP)

It is not only me that is missing something in gymnastics this year. Slate (which is going pretty nuts on the gymnastics beat on their Five Ring Circus blog) published an exhaustive look at how and why gymnasts used to dance better. It focuses on their floor routines, but I do think the narrative thread provided by those grace notes is part of what's missing when you watch the uneven parallel bars and balance beam routines as well. The New York Times, responsible for this sexist girl-fight story on Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas, also published two stories with just the sort of information NBC could provide to illuminate and critique. Nate Silver on why records are being broken every day in the pool, and not on the track (short answer: techonolgy), and Juliet Macur on two gymnasts in their late 30s who can still compete. The most illuminating quote:
Young gymnasts must do thousands of repetitions to develop aerial awareness and muscle patterns that eventually become second nature, Liddick said.

“She’s got all that down now,” Liddick added. “So why should she quit?”

If gymnastics has become a grim tour of injuries, tell us. If it is all about the points, explain the system. If a gymnast from another country is better, show her to us and describe her skill. It is hard to separate the buzzkill that gymnstics seems to have become from NBC's empty and airy coverage, but I'm willing to try. I just need someone to show me the critical path.