I'm the kind of occasional sports fan who watches three televised events a year: 1) the Super Bowl, 2) the World Series and 3) other. I hadn't counted on having the Winter Olympics be my third option, having been scared off by the prospect of too much tele-baggage. The memory of the Sydney Games' sob-sister background stories and Capraesque little-guy triumphs had scared me away. Besides, I've seen a lot of good stories come out of Park City, Utah, courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival—and didn't think anything about the luge or the freestyle moguls could rival those.
So when NBC's hosts broke out the turtlenecks, I made plans to spend two weeks doing something—anything!—else. Then I happened to glimpse some of the figure skating competition. It looked pretty good, and the instant replays and inspirational biographical data had been held at bay. Along came a French judge stranger than anything a fiction writer could have invented, and I was hooked. The fact is that nothing beats an exciting true story as it unfolds in real time, right down to the inevitable tear-jerking ending.
It turns out that this year's coverage has been reassuringly straightforward, with only the occasional glimpse of the athletes' baby pictures and favorite pets. I have learned that snowboarder Chris Klug had a liver transplant and that the husband of Canadian skater Catriona LeMay Doan wrestles steers and drives a Zamboni in Calgary, but that's not bad. Far more disturbing is the fact that there's still no Olympic regulation that prevents commentators from saying "their goal—Olympic gold," or "he understands now that he's arrived at the moment."
Nor was there any way on Feb. 14 to prevent Bob Costas from watching U.S. skier Caroline Lalive lose 17 seconds on the slopes in the Alpine combined and then announce, "Heartbreak on Valentine's Day!" Or to ban gruesome, butt-emphasizing superhero suits on skiers and skaters. Worst of all, there is nothing to keep a reporter from approaching an athlete who's just blown his chances and remark, "I know you wanted medals coming in here," as if that were a question. Thus confronted after he'd slammed into a gate, one Super G competitor gave the only honest answer: "It sucks to be, like, walking away."
However, for every story like Apolo Ohno's, which outshines what Hollywood makes up, there's the grunt work of the Games, the long and not-so-exciting competitions (at least for those of us who are casual sports viewers) that really aren't ready for prime time. NBC's two toughest jobs have been guessing what will make the best broadcast and, more important, knowing when to leave well enough alone. So far the network is succeeding at both.
Yes, it is now possible to jump-cut snowboarding for added excitement and to juxtapose athletes who didn't actually compete simultaneously. It's also possible to put John Wayne into a hockey game. But now that cows can talk in commercials and every third ad looks like an Olympic takeoff anyway, a very special contest takes shape. It's the Olympic match between truth and manipulation. This year NBC rates a medal for letting truth win.