By Mike Deak
WARSAW – The 32nd Olympiad opened up last weekend, bringing to our attention a unique obsession we dust off from the closet every four years. It also brought out a discussion in my own living room on how we as media cover events we normally don’t cover, as well as how high points (and sometimes low points) are handled.
In full disclosure, my wife would probably make a decent journalist. She can sort out the facts, spin them, and get people to talk about things they normally might not. As the NBC production of the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics unfolded, we consumed it as everyone else did. We picked at the silliness and marveled at the pomp at the same time. And as the ceremonies shifted from tape delay to real time, Japan being 13 hours ahead, we started consuming sports how we normally do.
As American athletes slowly started gathering medals, NBC was quick to send Michele Tafoya over to get the predetermined ‘A’ listers after their events, win or lose. One of the poster athletes before the games started, swimmer Caeleb Dressel, did what he was supposed to do and won gold. And there was Tafoya, an award-winning journalist, asking the tough questions. “So how does it feel to win gold?” My wife about lost it. You have all that access and all that material and that’s what the production truck piped into her ear to ask? And Dressel answered with about the same level of care, ‘Feels great!’
So that sparked a conversation we have at the house every once in a while. Why do we as media ask such stupid questions?
Well, some of us have asked each other that exact question. You can have Hall of Fame level media members in a group with all the opportunity, and the best that comes from them is “So, how does it feel?” We always want to know how it feels, because most of us haven’t been at that level of athletic performance. There’s a reason why Mike Tirico is seated next to Michael Phelps in Tokyo, reacting to the 4×100 USA men’s swim relay winning gold. A relay team, by the way, that has Chesterton High School graduate Blake Pieroni in tow. Pieroni was a prep swim monster, saw it first hand.
Back to the point. The underbelly of sports coverage is bringing the experience to an audience. Whether its NBC and its billion dollar deal with the Olympics, or the multiple networks attached to the NFL, the Indianapolis Star covering state athletics or all the way down to IFN working in and around Kosciusko County. We all have the same goal. We just get to the goal in different ways.
What caught my attention more than some of the hollow and obvious reaction questions was how the Olympics in general are being handled by NBC. For months, flashes of their marketing plans have been thrown out, some subliminal and some obvious. They were going to ride Dressel, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and USA basketball as hard as they could. They had the brand. But what was going to happen when some of their show ponies didn’t hit the mark?
Ledecky got beat very early on, losing to Ariarne Titmus of Australia in the 200-meter freestyle, and despite Ledecky swimming a personal best in the race, you could feel the broadcast slant hard to the glory of Titmus and her crazy coach. In an instant.
Both USA men’s basketball and USA women’s soccer have experienced losses, and their respective spokesmen and spokeswomen have had a hard time addressing it. Hey, look over here, 3-on-3 basketball is winning gold!
Lilly King, the pride of Evansville not named Don Mattingly, was another of the big-time swimmers with a ton of history, a backstory, drama with Russia, it was all tailor-made. Then King didn’t win the gold medal in her signature breaststroke, taking bronze instead as fellow American and soon-to-be darling Lydia Jacoby took gold. King was pushed aside as fast as the championship time itself to get to Jacoby, who now is Alaska’s favorite daughter along with the video package of her high school mates going crazy watching her.
It caught my attention, as well, Tuesday morning when the Today Show had Jenna Bush Hager and Sheinelle Jones updating everyone on the biggest news of the Olympics, that being Simone Biles checking out of the team gymnastics competition. While shocking in its own right for the sheer announcement, my mind went to all of the marketing that is attached to that decision. Biles has been the ‘it girl’ of the 2020 Olympic machine, from sheer product marketing to being hailed as perhaps the greatest female Olympian of all time. And how NBC was handling the stick in its spokes circled back to what my wife and I originally brought up about ‘so how does it feel?’
Hager used all the descriptive feels, words like ‘unbelievable’, ‘pressure’ and ‘unreal’. And literally in the next breath, transitioned to Jacoby with the adjective of ‘phenom’. It was telling. Who’s hot? Who do we need to be excited about? What other personality can we draw out for a sport most of us don’t typically care about with athletes we’ve never heard of (specifically internationally), and spin it so we’ll continue to watch when Biles isn’t competing, or Ledecky loses to an Australian, or those 13-year-old skateboarders keep falling doing railslides.
So the challenge to me going forward, I have to figure out a way to not ask ‘so how does it feel?’ I feel like that is going to be a big challenge, because in sports like gymnastics, tennis and swimming, most of us don’t know how it feels.
Other quick hits on the Olympics from early on:
Has anyone other than me noticed that softball is not a priority at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? No dugouts, no formal stadium, outfielders playing in the baseball infield, temporary walls. The International Olympic Committee cited the lack of a field because it was a package deal with baseball, softball not an Olympic sport in 2016 and won’t be at Paris in four years. So the compromise was to play within the baseball field in a makeshift cutout. Seems like in a country that won a gold medal in the sport, a field could have been produced somewhere.
Speaking of Japan needing to do better, Naomi Osaka looked like she would have rather been anywhere but lighting the Olympic flame. Anywhere! Maybe the mental burden she experienced that took her out of Wimbledon must have still been beating her down in Tokyo. I understand Saduharu Oh wasn’t physically able to make the ascent to light the torch, and Hideki Matsui did well to keep him upright carrying the torch forward, but where was Ichiro Suzuki? Any other Japanese Olympic gold medalists available? It was evident Osaka didn’t want to be there by her body language and millennial discourse, to which my perceptive wife added, “That’s the face of all millennials right there.”
The drone sphere, now that was awesome. I can’t nitpick any of that. It was a virtual Death Star meets Hunger Games meets all that Japanese technology we always hear about and see 10 years later…bravo to the producers of that moment at the Opening Ceremonies.
Bermuda’s Flora Duffy won her country’s first-ever gold medal by winning the triathlon, and in the same race, American Katie Zaferes said seeing a rainbow on the route helped her to a bronze. Zaferes said the rainbow represented her dad, who had passed away a few months ago, but the rainbow spoke to her as if to say ‘Hi, Katie’ as she finished the race. Having the triathlon coming up this weekend in Syracuse, instead of asking ‘How do you feel? (tired and hot, obviously), I’m going to have to dig deep and find out some personal angles. Maybe what did they have for breakfast that fueled their victory?
Lastly, unpopular comment: Notre Dame fencing feels like it has more long-standing success than its football. All of these fencers in Tokyo seem like they are Notre Dame products, winning championships.