Things end well for some, and not much for others
No post-Olympic wrap up is complete without a round up of things which perhaps could have been done a little better. I know that not many people actually read this website, but hopefully the inclusion of these ‘areas of improvement’ can in some way contribute to the next Olympic games being a better experience for all.
Now, to the television coverage. Wow. So this is the first games where I experienced a vast array of coverage from different countries. When the London games were on, I was hanging out in Cambridge so I watched it all on BBC. During the Vancouver games I was in Vancouver, so I watched it all on various Canadian channels, and live in-person at the events themselves. This time, I was stuck in Hong Kong.
First, a word about the coverage in Hong Kong. I could vomit; it was that bad. The opening ceremony was shown live in its entirety and it became very clear when the athletes came out that the commentators had no clue what they were talking about. None. They had found out who the flag-bearers were and done a quick google search on their event and what their past achievements were. They hadn’t gone so far as to find out how to pronounce anyone’s names properly, which I found particularly grating whenever I spotted a flag-bearer who was also a friend. It was particularly telling when the camera would occasionally zoom in on a famous athlete – famous if you know anything about winter sports, that is – and was greeted with a conspicuous silence. And then during the performance part of the ceremonies, the numerous clever references to Russian history and culture were lost on the commentators. I don’t know where they find these people, but when I can honestly say that random people off the street would have probably done a better job, then you get an idea of just how appalling the situation was.
As for the sports coverage, we got a measly 1-hour highlights update every day. That alone was pretty offensive. No live coverage of anything. I really got the feeling that the people who were assigned the task of covering the winter games took it as some form of punishment. Each hour-long highlights reel consisted of self-contained pre-recorded tidbits of whichever medal events were on the previous night. Even when two events which followed each other (i.e. the mens and ladies team pursuits) were from the same sport, they were introduced as if the show had just begun. The commentators knew nothing about the athletes, the sports, the histories, and in some cases betrayed that they hadn’t even looked up the results of previous rounds. Sickening. Living in Hong Kong, one could be forgiven for not even knowing that the winter olympics was on.
So instead, I had to resort to illegal live streams. Fortunately, the world of illegal livestreaming is a lively and diverse place with much to choose from. The service providers are driven by (and you can tell from the ads sometimes) the demand for live football in countries with impressively stupid TV coverage of live sports (yes, Hong Kong, I’m looking at you). Most often, I would look for Canadian or Dutch coverage for the speed skating events, since I have a passable understanding of both Canadian and Dutch, and also because I know many of the people who do the commentary in Canada and Holland have extensive speed skating knowledge and would thus be able to give informed and knowledgable commentary. I also occasionally tuned into Danish TV because a good friend of mine, who I once coached, was doing the commentary for the speed skating events there. American, British, Russian, and even Portuguese TV was watched occasionally, since (being, y’know, illegal) sometimes certain livestreams would be down.
I noticed many things. First and most obviously, the commentators cheered for their own country. This is not very surprising, but what I found amazing was that whenever something happened, for example someone getting penalised in the short track racing, the commentators would be incredibly biased, even when it was very clear to someone who actually knows a bit about the skating, that the commentators didn’t actually know what they were talking about. Elise Christie’s penalty in the ladies 1000m semifinal on short track, while harsh in my opinion, wasn’t totally unjustified, but the BBC commentary team was practically foaming at the mouth about it. In fact, they went on and on about it for so long, I almost missed the B-final for the mens 5000m relay (which the BBC weren’t showing because… I don’t know… maybe there weren’t any brits in it). While one generally expects a certain amount of jingoism, in recent sporting competitions, I feel that it has really gotten out of hand. Of course, the public laps it up, and since these broadcasts aren’t really intended to be seen outside of their home countries, it’s really only foreigners living abroad who even notice (and nobody cares about the opinions of foreigners).
The complete cluelessness of some commentators was striking. I don’t know much about the world of skiing, for example, but if I was given the job of commentating on skiing events at an event as big as the Olympics, I’d go home and do some research. With google and wikipedia, it’s not difficult to find information, and unlike hot-button topics like anti vaccination idiocy, and climate science denial luddites, sporting results are relatively uncontroversial. More than that, if you work at a TV station and are in a high enough position to be given a job like that, you’ve probably a friend or two who actually does know a lot about a certain sport. It strikes me as lazy and disrespectful to show up to commentate on an event without going to some effort to familiarise yourself with it. After all, these athletes have dedicated years of their lives just to be there and compete at the highest level, at a competition which only happens every four years. They owe it to them, and also to the families, friends, and what are usually huge support crews who stand behind these athletes, but aren’t able to go and see them live (because, let’s face it, Russia is an expensive place to travel to for many). I know more than a few commentators who frequented this website regularly for extra information, and some have even asked me questions directly – I, and I’m sure everyone else involved in our respective sports, am more than happy to give out information if it helps the public get a better understanding and appreciation for our sports.
“The notion that a gold medal is somehow worth the same as a silver or a bronze is, frankly, ridiculous.”
And finally in my list of peeves, this one is reserved for the Americans. Since 2008, NBC Olympics departed from the accepted methodology for measuring Olympic success and everyone followed. Everyone in America, of course. Since the start of the games in 1896, the ‘medal count’ has always ranked countries by the number of gold medals, then in cases where that number was equal, the number of silver medals would be counted, then bronze. The reason for this is actually historically-based – during the ancient Olympics, and also in the first few iterations of the modern Olympics, a medal was only awarded to the Olympic champion. Therefore, a medal count would only be counting the number of gold medals anyway. However, the Americans, realising that they weren’t number one, and refusing to accept it in the way that only Americans can, decided to change this. If you take a gander at either NBC’s Olympic website, or the medal count in the New York Times, you’ll find countries listed by the total number of medals (if you look ANYwhere else in the world for a medal count, the UK, Australia, Holland, Russia it will be listed in the way I described at the beginning of this paragraph). This is not only ridiculous, but actually quite offensive. This basically shows that in order to raise themselves in the order, they are willing to very publicly declare that all medals are equal. The notion that a gold medal is somehow worth the same as a silver or a bronze is, frankly, ridiculous. This is a shameful reflection of the incredibly destructive attitude that Americans have towards themselves. I’m all for positive thinking, and optimism, but to take it to the level of self-deception that the Americans have will, in the long run, ensure that they are never number one (no matter how many times they tell themselves). To be successful in sports (and, indeed in anything) you have to be honest with yourself, and this takes dishonesty to truly dizzying heights, moreso because everyone in the world can see right through this.
Just as an example, the article in the New York Times about Viktor An (formerly Ahn Hyun Soo of Korea, pictured above) who recently made history by taking an eighth career medal merely mentions that Ahn has ‘equalled’ the American Apolo Anton Ohno with that medal. No disrespect to Apolo, who is one of the sport’s all time greats, a fact which nobody is refuting, but his eight medals are broken down to two gold, two silver and four bronze, while Ahn has six gold and two bronze medals. I’ll let readers decide for themselves just how equal those medals are.
It’s difficult to see how any of this will change. The current ‘business model’ is for TV stations around the world to bid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics. These bids (which are HUGE sums of money) basically pay for the games. Even so, as Russia has demonstrated, the games can still run at a loss. Of course, for these TV stations to get their money back, they sell advertising and because of these structures, anything that undercuts the exclusivity of their captive audience is seen as a threat. Even though my watching of Dutch and Canadian TV is probably ‘good’ in some sense for NOS.nl, and CBC.ca, this would be seen as a threat to Hong Kong TVB and their advertisers.
What I would like to do, is have my own livestream channel, and do my own commentary with the help of a few buddies to provide ‘special comments’. I would probably be able to sell enough advertising to cover the cost of my time, and maybe even a plane ticket to the games to do a few interviews and take some of my own footage, but there’s no way I would have the capacity to provide the kind of bandwidth that a major TV station could. Of course, someday I could be commentating in a country that actually cared about speed skating, but the bigger point here is that there’s no way to really punish a country who does their coverage really poorly. People tune in to watch the sporting events, crap commentary can be really annoying, but when there’s no choice, then there’s not much you can do about it. Perhaps someday livestreams from the major providers might not be IP-address blocked and people watching through the internet (which is becoming increasingly common) will be able to switch channels, and then there’ll be some real competition. I don’t know how advertisers would see this, and I honestly think it would be too risky for as conservative a culture as TV stations sports program directors to try.
Don’t forget to click on the sochi2104 tag below to read other articles about these olympics. You may also want to read some of the other ‘Sochi Specials’ which have been very popular. Ever wondered what a day in the life of an athlete was like? Maybe you’ve been thinking about the fairness of deciding the race by as small a margin as 0.003 of a second. Or alternatively, are seeking a detailed numerical analysis of Shani Davis’s races to determine for yourself whether the suits really made a difference.