The Winter Olympics have a magical quality that most sports events don’t. From the artistry of figure skaters and action sports athletes, to the reckless abandon of skiers and sliders, to the impossibly beautiful mountains and the sheer quirkiness of curling, not even the Summer Games or the World Cup transport us to something altogether different.
Yet, just like the judging system in figure skating, the Winter Games and the way we watch them have room for improvement.
I’m not just a cranky, fair-weather event watcher. I’ve seen the Winter Olympics from more perspectives than the average bear: In 2002 and 2006, I was on USA Today’s online crew and saw most of the Games on international broadcast feeds or Eurosport, plus the occasional live event. When Vancouver hosted the Games in 2010, I covered Nordic events and biathlon each day in Whistler, with occasional glimpses of international feeds and CBC coverage.
Would these Games live up to what Salt Lake and Vancouver delivered? Could NBC coverage do them justice?
This year, I covered the Games for my SportsMyriad blog from the comfort of my basement. Having been up close before, I had some trepidation. Since I last saw the Games on American TV in 1998, we’ve seen high-definition broadcasts and the multichannel universe redefine the home viewing experience. But would these Games live up to what Salt Lake and Vancouver delivered? And could NBC’s cable networks and online feeds do justice to the Games?
The answer is a qualified “yes.” NBC and the International Olympic Committe got many things right, but if they asked for my advice, this is where I’d encourage them to build — not just four years from now, but in the years in between.
Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir
Daytime viewing audiences were treated to a couple of legitimate figure-skating experts who made it informative — and fun! With Weir bringing flashy clothes and funny quips each day, along with 10 pounds of jewelry between Lipinski and him, viewers may not even realize how well he and Lipinski were breaking down each move. They pointed out each technical mistake without obsessing over them. They had just enough snark to bring in the millennials, but they maintained a contagious enthusiasm.
The duo, along with veteran play-by-play man Terry Gannon, also did other events for NBC this season. That needs to continue.
And why limit them to figure skating? How about red-carpet critiques? The Voice? Give these two their own variety show.
Surely no one is surprised each time the Olympics roll around and the USA falls in love with curling all over again. The ratings are huge, even if USA Network curiously ditched a lot of live games in favor of various iterations of Law & Order spinoff reruns.
So why is curling so difficult to find in the years between the Games? Why are the upcoming U.S. Championships, from which the winners advance to the World Championships, only available online?
One more tip: The microphones on the players are overdone. We need to hear the commentators breaking down the strategic options and occasional arcana, not “HAARRRRRRDDD!!” “WHOOOOAAAA!!” or “HYYUNNNNNNHHHAAAAAHHH!!”
NHL players in the Olympics
Why does the NHL drag its feet over committing its players to the Games? The players care, the fans care, the networks care, and it’s sound business for the NHL. If the league wants to keep the world’s best players out of the Olympics, a lot of the world’s best players won’t come to the NHL any more.
Transparency in judging
Figure skating is a marquee event, and it has some elements that will always be subjective. The scoring system of the past decade has helped — instead of a puzzling “5.6,” we can drill down and see what happened. Maybe a triple jump was really 2.75 turns. Maybe a certain spin was only Level 2 instead of Level 4. But the anonymity of the judges and the lack of accountability is dubious, to the point that a wildly implausible USA-Russia conspiracy theory gained traction.
Yet that’s better than snowboarding and freestyle skiing, where the judges see a series of 540s and 720s and McTwists, then say, “Uhhh … 87?”
More, more, more
NBC is getting better about letting hard-core fans see winter sporting events outside the Olympic extravaganza. In the four-year wait between Games, NBC and sibling network Universal Sports have a little bit of winter sports fare, and ESPN captures many Olympians in the Winter X Games.
No one thinks ski jumping or skeleton will replace the NFL any time soon, but there’s clearly an appetite for more, so why not make the investment? The in-Games “GoldZone” could use a boost in production values. The online Olympic streams should feature NBC’s experts, not erratically knowledgeable international-feed broadcasters. And we shouldn’t have to go another four years without seeing the stars of Sochi in well-produced, well-marketed broadcasts. These athletes deserve a presentation that matches their skills — the audience will come for it.
We want the mountains. And curling. And that magical feeling of seeing athletes tame the ice and snow to excel and enthrall.
Why you should care
Because the thrills of winter sports and Johnny Weir don’t have to disappear when the cameras leave Russia.