New York Times sports/TV columnist Richard Sandomir complained (with an awkward pun) Friday that NBC was tolling “their jingo bells” with excessively pro-American coverage of the Olympics in Rio: “NBC Coverage Doesn’t Stray From Home.” The online headline was harsher: “Little Is Medal-Worthy About NBC’s Coverage of Foreign Athletes.”
Of course, the United States has earned a huge haul of medals in Rio, far more than any other nation, which would explain a lot of the coverage tilt. Social media commenters pointed out it was hardly unusual for a nation’s Olympics coverage to favor their national teams and wondered why Americans weren’t allowed the same privilege.
America’s talent has produced more than 80 medals so far, well more than its closest rivals, China and Britain. It is easy, then, for NBC, the primary conduit to the Games for most Americans, to justify its extreme focus on American exceptionalism, especially when gymnasts and swimmers of the United States team have done so well in sports that are critical to the network’s prime-time success.
There are few pretenses to NBC’s pro-American predisposition in Brazil. And while it is not found in unabashed, biased admiration -- there has been some, most notably on women’s eight rowing -- it has been visible in who is interviewed after an event or whose families are glimpsed in stadiums and arenas.
Sandomir criticized NBC’s decision to keep on hyping the gold-medal machine swimmer Michael Phelps even after he finally lost a race, to Joseph Schooling of Singapore.
Another moment in swimming called out for a fairer approach. Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak of Canada tied for the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. The race itself was called with reasonable objectivity by Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines; the importance of Manuel being the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming event was played up (“I am one happy camper!” Gaines shouted, losing the aforementioned objectivity). But in the follow-up interview with Manuel, Tafoya questioned her as if she were the sole winner.
And Oleksiak was not interviewed, a fact not lost on some Canadians.
The pro-American approach is one NBC rarely detours from. It is in the DNA of Olympic broadcasting. Networks around the world with the rights to the Games can toll their jingo bells when they please. And it’s easier to interview your own nation’s athletes, especially if language barriers exist.
Still, there should be a better way to present these stories without so much American navel-gazing -- perhaps expending extra effort to talk after an event to many more medal-winning foreign athletes besides Usain Bolt, who, as a shrewd Olympic personality, recognizes the value of making himself available to NBC.
One example that showed the good sense in talking to foreign athletes was an interview with the winner of the men’s pole vault, Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil, whose delight in the gold medal was matched by his marked disbelief. (Not even NBC could resist a hometown hero in Brazil.)
But there have not been enough like him, depriving us of at least a little window into the outside world.
A more glaring example was NBC’s overhyping of Sydney McLaughlin as the “17-year-old sensation from New Jersey” before the 400-meter hurdles semifinals. The segment opened with a short feature about her. Then we saw her parents (but no one else’s). Yet as she faded to fifth and as NBC replayed the race, the coverage, with comments by Ato Boldon and Sanya Richards-Ross, became about her struggles, her superstar talent and her expected return to the Summer Games in 2020.
After the loss, NBC talked only to McLaughlin, even as the winner, Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic, walked behind McLaughlin as she was speaking to NBC’s Lewis Johnson.
The shock when NBC finds the families of foreign athletes, like the Australian swimmers Cate and Bronte Campbell, and Mo Farah of Britain, who won gold in the 10,000 meters, is worthy of a gasp of joy.
Sandomir also hinted at America network favoritism during the London Olympics, and in another sport, took the offended liberal line against Curt Schilling, after the former pitching ace was fired from ESPN for a tweet mocking the transgender bathroom controversy.
The Times handwringing over excessive patriotism in American Olympic coverage has a long history, dating back at least t 1984: “ABC OLYMPIC COVERAGE IS CALLED TOO PARTIAL.” At the time, Americans had won 28 of the first 61 gold medals awarded, so perhaps some partiality was in order?
The president of the International Olympic Committee has protested what he calls the overemphasis on American athletes in ABC's television coverage of the Games....Apart from concentrating on American athletes, which can be justified by their domination so far, the ABC telecasts have resonated with other sorts of partiality....The American coverage has prompted denigrating comment in newspapers around the world, including The Daily Mail and The Guardian in London and Le Monde in Paris, all of whom characterized ABC's approach as self-centered....Compared to American telecasts, the broadcasters in other countries are apparently rather more even- handed. In France, according to one viewer, the tone is ''self-mocking,'' including remarks like, ''We did extremely badly in this event, but what did you expect?''
Which is what happens when your nation doesn't win as many medals as another one does.