By Guest Contributor Kendra James
NBC tried, it really did.
It’s easy to say that one shouldn’t let one network destroy the way we view the Olympics as a whole, but when you’re nearly out of patience by the end of the Opening Ceremonies, you know it’s going to be an interesting event.
But after a week or so to consider and collect our thoughts, it’s time to acknowledge the “best” of the worst of the network’s telecast of the 30th Summer Olympiad–if only because the network has the Olympics through 2020. This is a fact, a fixed point in time and space, that we in America are going to have to accept for another three sets of Games (Sochi, Rio, and Peyongchang).
Despite NBC’s decision to cut part of the Opening Ceremonies, make insulting comments at the expense of countries whose names they found amusing , and air a commercial featuring a gymnast monkey after Bob Costas’ “Master Class On Race” featuring Gabby Douglas were questionable, yes. But they were by no means the only ones looking to medal in the Olympic Hate and Journalistic Biases competition.
Featuring Douglass on Brian Williams’ news magazine Rock Center was a good start. They even dubbed her ‘America’s Sweetheart,’ which made it altogether stranger when they didn’t quite treat her as such. In attempting to create their own realities, NBC has a habit of picking their favorite, most marketable athletes and promoting their stories to the point where it’s as if their victory is solely by NBC’s behest.
Despite her appearance on Rock Center, their subsequent coverage of and following Gabby’s gold medal all-around win had more lows than highs.
Worse than the aforementioned gymnast monkey commercial (an ad promoting Animal Practice, a show whose existence alone should serve to prove that NBC is well past its prime), was the speech delivered by Costas beforehand.
You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.
Those imaginary barriers can be a bitch, y’all.
The imaginary sacrifices you have to make as the single mother of three children with an ex-husband serving in the military. The imaginary comments that any non-white child competing in a traditionally white space is bound to hear while she’s on the come-up. The imaginary time you have to put into that one child despite having two others. Oh, and all that imaginary money you’ve gotta spend to become competitive in a sport like gymnastics.
In a world where female athletes are actively expected to be not only the best at their sport, but also the best-looking while doing it, the barriers are certainly still there. They only grow exponentially when you add being non-white on top of that. The remarks aren’t blatantly racist, but they’re dismissive of a certain reality and certainly follow the ‘post-racial’ storyline featured this decade on America. His remarks came after a week of criticism towards Douglas about everything from her hair to her mother’s finances (even going so far as to dig into her Chapter 13 documents).
Almost more disturbing than the comments about her hair was the analysis by armchair therapists who used their pulpits to comment on the way Douglas’ mother raised her, by questioning whether or not we should be ‘unnerved’ due to her Christian faith.
Bob Costas might want to think about how scrutiny of this nature might affect how a young girl sees herself.
In contrast, Lolo Jones has had NBC’s promotional machine behind her since May, despite not being a favorite to medal in her 100m hurdle event. Prominently featured not only on NBC, but in magazine photo spreads and several commercial sponsorships, Jones received predominantly positive coverage until a New York Timesarticle published a day before her event final.
The article attempted, very badly, to dissect Jones’ popularity, saying that she’s playing up her “exotic beauty” rather than any actual talent. While fellow Team USA members Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells were the actual favorites to win medal at the 100m hurdles in London, they didn’t receive half the coverage or attention that Jones did. When the two women did medal in London, NBC had Jones on alone to talk about the article and how it might have gotten into her head. Wells and Harper, though, shared a three-minute interview with Australian gold medal winner Sallie Pearson.
The Times article would have been less of a personal attack on Jones if it had deigned to mention the real issues at play in the differences of marketing Jones, Harper, and Wells. There was an opportunity here to talk about the ways in which female athletes are held to a higher standard of beauty than their male counterparts. Or, if they’d really felt up to a challenge, broach the topic of the standards of Black female beauty that the media is willing to profile. Instead they went with the simple personal attack that really accomplished nothing aside from getting Jones another Today Show slot.
Harper and Wells not only beat Jones in the U.S. Olympic trials, they were the American favorites. Because Pearson was running at peak performance, Jones wasn’t expected to medal at all. Yet she was the sole focus of American media. In an interview with Michelle Beadle her teammates noticed:
Beadle: You thought you weren’t getting enough respect…Why is that?
Harper: I feel I had a pretty good story — knee surgery two months before Olympic trials in 2008, to make the team but 0.007, not have a contract…working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work. Coming off running in someone else’s shoes getting the gold medal. Uhhh, I’d say I was pretty interesting. I just felt as if I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible, and to come way with the gold medal, and to honestly seem as if, because their favorite didn’t win all of sudden it’s just like, ‘Were going to push your story aside, and still gonna push this one.’ That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings. But I feel as if I showed I can deal with the pressure, I came back, and I think you kinda got to respect it a little bit now.
Beadle: [to Harper and Kellie Wells] You guys kinda hang out together…Is there fighting amongst the team–we’re talking about Lolo Jones if you can’t figure this out—is there an awkward situation or now that it’s over we’ve all just moved on?
Wells: Well, I think that, on the podium tonight, the three girls that earned their spot and they got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed. And that’s all that really needs to be said.
Harper: BOOM! Just like that.
Beadle: You can cut the tension in here with a knife.
Jones can’t be blamed for the amount of attention NBC and others decided to place on her. However, she’s certainly benefiting from it, potentially at the overall expense of her teammates.
From Harper and Wells’ comments above, to Douglass’ soundbite to the Times concerning her underdog status, these Olympic games showcased how aware young athletes are of the media biases they have to deal with. Destinee Hooker, one of two Black women on the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team, joined in on the fun when she was asked about her name by TMZ. After informing them that, yes, she’s heard the childish jokes, she added a final parting shot. Maybe it’s just me, but it sounded salty as all get out:
No reporters have asked me about my name. You are the first thank you for asking by the way.
Though, if Bob Costas can’t let the chance to say ‘Djibouti’ go by without a giggle, then I don’t know why anyone else would expect mature behavior from an outlet like TMZ.
In the end NBC spent two weeks working two opposing angles. They couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was that American women medaled more than the men, yet, as Jay Smooth points out, the nature of the coverage was slanted less toward their talent and the exertion it took to make it to the games and more towards stretching any and all emotional threads as far as they could. Getting coverage required a pretty face or a sob story, though preferably both. Or maybe some cute kids; for instance, 400m hurdler Lashinda Deemus’ twin boys were always mentioned in her story.
It also “helped,” as in Douglas’ case, to be an athlete in a sport where their presence is…uncommon. One of my favorite Olympics activity is watching the announcers lose their minds when they encounter the athletic racial outlier.
Such was the case for gymnast John Orozco, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent–a fact NBC never let you forget; every announcer was sure to say, “He’s from The Bronx,” at least once every time we saw him compete. Orozco and teammate Danell Leyva, who was born in Cuba (his parents were past Cuban Olympians, and his stepfather defected to the U.S. by swimming across the Rio Grande) seemed to present a double-WTF moment for NBC’s crew: during the Olympic Trials, one announcer actually said, “It’s amazing–the two best American gymnasts: One from Cuba and the other from The Bronx. Go figure.”
Again, while it might be ‘amazing,’ no one seemed to want to discuss what was so amazing about it, or why they considered it so amazing and unbelievable in the first place.
Would NBC have had to resort to the non-stories, numerous puff pieces, and Golden Girl (or Boy) stories if they could actually depend on viewers tuning in to see the results? NBC’s heavy use of tape-delayed broadcasts effectively makes it impossible for any potential viewer with internet access and a twitter account to not be spoiled by the time they actually air the events in primetime. It’s almost as if with the loss of the drama of the sports themselves, the media is forced to create its own beast…and we’re the ones left to suffer for it.
That said, if you turned down the volume (or were lucky enough to be able to simply turn on a BBC feed) the Games certainly had their moments.
Saudi Arabia allowed women to compete for the first time; the Lolo Jones “controversy” notwithstanding, the U.S. Womens’ Track and Field team proved to be flawless (and Alyson Felix watches Scandal in her room before races; omg, she’s just like us!!), Cullen Jones continued to subvert that pesky stereotype about black swimmers with three medals, Danell Leyva exists, which alone is worth a gold medal in my book; runners Oscar Pistorious and Kirani James exchanging bibs proved to be a moment that really sums up what the Games are supposed to be about. And also, this happened:
For four minutes and forty seconds I was in 4th grade again, and too young to understand the double-edged sword of the media coverage of this whole affair. The “womens’ games” ended with a reunion of the biggest girl-power group of all time, and Bob Costas didn’t babble his way through it. It might have been the best thing NBC did for the whole of London 2012.