Twelve years ago I covered the Winter Olympics in Nagano. It was exhausting – and exhilarating.
Every day, right in front of me, I got to savor the skill and the speed of the skiers and the snowboarders, the hockey players and the figure skaters. But what I remember most is the energy generated by the athletes and the audience, who seemed to feed off each other. I didn’t get to merely see it. I got to feel it – an experience shared with thousands of people from around the world, right as it happened.
So that’s why I was stunned when I called my friends back home, breathless about the drama stirring all around me, only to learn they had no idea what I was talking about. They weren’t impressed by the Nagano Olympics, or the coverage of it – take your pick. And that’s when I realized the Olympics I was experiencing had nothing to do with the one they were watching – or not watching at all. (Nagano had the lowest ratings in 30 years.)
Now, I realize TV can’t compete with being there, especially 12 time zones away. But it can come a lot closer than it usually does.
American networks spend so much money on the Olympics – $2.3 billion for the rights alone this year – they feel compelled to protect their investment with too many safe, soft feature stories filmed months before the Games even begin.
Yes, I’m talking about those ubiquitous “Up Close and Personal” segments, about the cross-country skier from Eveleth, Minnesota, who became world class fast while being chased by dogs on his after-school paper route. And that’d be a fine story – if it didn’t keep us from watching the former paper boy competing in “The Actual Olympics” segments.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation does much better, with much less. Or they did, until they lost the Canadian rights to CTV. And that’s a crying shame, because the CBC consistently showed you the most interesting athletes, even if they weren’t Americans, and they showed them competing, live.
Why does that matter? Because sports is one of the few things on TV when nobody knows how it’s going to turn out. You just can’t get a preview of tonight’s game. So when we see a classic competition unfolding before our very eyes, we become participants in that event. We share it with family, friends, even strangers – or tell them, Awww, man! Ya missed it! And we remember it forever.
I’ll never forget watching the ’76 Winter Olympics on a school night with my brother and my dad. We saw skier after skier cut the leading time, until the last skier, world champion Franz Klammer, came flying over the hill in his skin-tight yellow suit in a reckless attempt to claim his title – and he did it. We jumped and cheered as if we were there – and we were, in our living room, sharing it with millions of people around the world.
The list is long. Think of Tonya and Nancy, right down to Tonya’s broken skate lace. Or speed skater Dan Jansen’s repeated heartbreaks before winning the gold. Or the Miracle on Ice medal ceremony, when captain Mike Eruzione spontaneously called his teammates up to the medal stand with him, and they all managed to fit, just barely – a scene no one who saw it can ever forget.
If you witnessed those events, when they happened, you’re probably nodding right now. It’s something we share, because, “We were there.”
And that’s why I wish NBC would be kind enough to get the heck out of the way, and let us watch the athletes, not the announcers, do what they’ve been preparing to do for years.
Only that way can we have a few more memories.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.