Not Being Considerate of One’s Audience: US Television’s Coverage of Olympic and International Sports

With the Track and Field World Championship Meet coming up in London in August of this year (these championships are held every other year) it would be good to once again speak about the way track and field is covered in the U.S.  Four years ago criticism of NBC for delaying London Olympic coverage till prime time was to be expected as was their delay.  Criticism of the surfeit of commentary-as-chatter was also to be as expected as was the inanity of the chatter.  And even in establishment and mainstream venues criticism of the exclusionist nationalism of the coverage–decades after it began–emerged, albeit in still much too tepid a form.  Frank Bruni, a New York Times center-right columnist whose columns are necessarily always within the safe margin of center-right and center surprisingly ventured forth with a criticism of the “jingoism”  of the coverage  although far more incisive criticisms about this could be found amongst many of the comments upon his column where the common theme consisted of vehement and angry criticisms of the total concentration on American winners or favorites to the exclusion and neglect of the accomplishments of athletes from other countries.   Nonetheless, rarely do criticisms of the jingoistic, nationalistic, and exclusionary coverage ever constitute themselves in the kind of specificity that can have a chance to escape being a merely generalized condemnation and lament of “neglect of foreign athletes”.   And therefore rarely do criticisms truly unveil the illegitimacy of coverage not just in terms of its chauvinism but also in terms of its failure to reach the minimal requirements necessary to be seen as “coverage” or “reportage” or the “actual presentation of the event”.

But along all these avenues coverage of the Rio Olympics continued in just the same inadequate way.  To illustrate this, I will look at coverage of track and field in particular, but merely as an example of everything else.   Races in the sprints involve eight runners. In middle and longer distances there are more runners (in swimming there are always eight swimmers).  But American coverage in the Olympics (but also in world championship and international meets) does not at the beginning of round one, quarter-final, or semi-final races (and sometimes even in finals races) present the eight runners to the audience.  If no American is in such a race the race will not be shown at all unless the race contains an absolutely prohibitive favorite (such as Usain Bolt) from another country.  An American competitor will be shown, the camera coming into tight focus, and perhaps another competitor deemed to be a favorite.  And that will be it.  While a viewer hears the crowd cheering each runner as they are being introduced the camera remains on the American (or even on the prohibitive favorite if they are non-American) or switches back and forth between the American and the other favorite–or other American if there are two Americans in the race.

The possible corporate response that there is not enough time to show all eight runners or that this “isn’t what our audience” wants, etc. cannot stand up to even the most minimal scrutiny.  The sustained close-up of the American goes on much longer than necessary and there would be more than enough time to show the audience the other competitors and still have a “close-up on the American”.  And it makes the voices of the announcers all the more painful to hear for any viewer with a minimal level of intersubjective and ethical consciousness, insouciant and oblivious as the announcers tone, cadence, and demeanor are in relation to the unjustifiable exclusion to which they give themselves as at least subsidiary accomplices if not more.  But the essential is this: if a race involves competitors and you don’t show the competitors then what you demonstrate above all is a profound contempt not just for the competitors, but also for the viewing audience, contempt in this sense for the American audience.

But NBC (and it should be understood that any other network would have done the same) might reply that they do show a list of the competitors and thereby do introduce the competitors.  Firstly, a name on a list is not a competitor–it is a name on a list.  Secondly, it is true that a list is flashed on the screen.  But even this doesn’t really introduce the competitors because in running events the list is in many cases superimposed on the track itself so that it lies in a perpendicular as opposed to a parallel plane to the viewer’s line of sight (making it harder to read), but even when it is shown in parallel plane it is left on the screen for such a short time that even the fastest of readers could not always read through it and still less have time to get a coherent sense of all the foreign names.  Moreover even very sophisticated viewers from the standpoint of geographical knowledge would have difficulty at once reading all the names and ascertaining the country of origin of each runner given that the names of the countries are listed in country code abbreviations beside each country’s flag.  I would venture to say that my geographical knowledge as well as my knowledge of country flags would be in the top one percent, certainly among Americans, but not every country code is immediately recognizable to me, and still less every flag, and certainly not given the fleeting instance the list remains on the screen.  Worse: in long distance races even in the finals only the American and one or two others is shown on screen and then, given that in such races there are more than eight competitors, the list of runners is broken into two parts and only shown in smaller type in the lower-left of the screen and in these instances of a duration even shorter than in sprint races.  Contempt?  The network denies its audience the constituent element of this kind of international gathering, the experience of the vivacity of our variegated humanity. But I speak here of international meets. Yet it goes on in domestic meets too where the networks will in most cases only show the favorites in a race and leave the others invisible, as for example in American Olympic Trials races.

The network’s assumption, intentional or merely functional, that the American audience doesn’t want to see, if even for the briefest of moments, runners from other  countries, is a nullification without foundation of the spirit of hospitality–and even internationalism–that the vast majority of Americans, indeed the vast majority of people everywhere, possess.  In some of the sprint races there might be runners from–and this is but a random list–Cambodia, Mozambique, Gambia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Andorra and many other countries either small in size or wealth or both.  Sports programs in many of these countries lack the sports infrastructures available in richer countries.  Their teams at the Olympics are not large.  They do not generally advance athletes to semi-finals, still less in premier events.  I want to see their athletes when they are in events!  I will not see their athletes in gymnastics or swimming or dressage or tennis, etc. because, alas, they probably won’t be there.  But when they can be seen I want to seem them!  The hundreds of comments on Frank Bruni’s piece in almost all cases expressed the same desire and this desire can easily be universalized for all audiences.  But of course this desire pertains not just to smaller or poorer countries.   In the London Olympics in the men’s 4 x 100 relay in track and field  the Japanese men placed sixth in the final (fifth actually since the third place Canadian team was disqualified for an infraction), a genuine achievement and breakthrough for a country without a strong sprinting tradition and yet despite the noteworthiness of this story the team’s first lap runner was shown in neither at the beginning of the semi-final nor final round and the achievement was not mentioned at all.  In fact, both the men’s and women’s 4×100 relay races were presented as if they were a dual meet, the U.S. against Jamaica, with nary another country or another country’s runner shown at the start or at the finish (but the exact same exclusion occurred prior to the Olympics at the Penn Relays as but one more example of the standard rule of U.S. track and field coverage and presentation). In Rio the Japanese men in the 4 x 100 relay in track and field won they silver medal! A marvelous achievement!  Astonishingly, just before the race began, the coverage having completed blotted out all other competitors save for the the U.S. and Jamaica, focused on the Japanese first leg runner and mentioned that the Japanese passed the baton better than anyone else.  But after the Japanese won the silver medal, none of the Japanese runners were shown and none of their names mentioned.

In many races where a foreign athlete wins, it turns out to be an athlete who had not been shown at the start.  In London, Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut placed first and second in the women’s 1500 meter race to secure Turkey’s first track medals in history (a story at once noteworthy and worthy of celebration), but Gamze Bulut, who emerged in the semi-finals as one of the favorites, was not shown at the beginning of the finals race and the post-race coverage ignored both Alptekin and Bulut.  More: at the conclusion of many races the coverage focuses on the winner and doesn’t list the results until well after the race is completed, sometimes not till after they have interviewed the winner in those instances where the winner is an American.  This doubtless is to the detriment of the runners and to the audience but at times to the detriment of the American runners as well who have not finished in the top three places.  In London in the women’s 100 meter final the initial list of results only contained the top three finishers, absurd because most of the audience could have determined the first three on the basis of merely viewing the finish while the next five places would not have been immediately ascertainable given that one’s field of vision tends to focus on the initial finishers and even more in a 100 meter race where the racers tend to be more bunched at conclusion then in longer-distance races. And this is all repeated in Rio.

The lack of consideration the network shows for their audience in not showing all the competitors in a race is quite obviously a lack of consideration for any ethos or spirit of genuine (as opposed to the network’s manufactured and hypocritical) internationalism, but it is also in keeping with a spirit of exclusionism quite happy to keep and maintain all the structures of inequality both at home and abroad that have led to the under-representation in many of the Olympic events of the smaller and poorer countries.  But this lack of consideration, indeed this kind of contempt, applies not just to the audience but to the very American athletes the network ceaselessly promotes.  If I am an athlete I want my competitors to be known and shown, otherwise I’m a mere prop in the network’s advertisement video.  But that is just it: for the network foreign athletes and foreign countries are nothing but props, scenery, background albeit in many instances invisible props, scenery, and background.  Of course even if this is what an American audience wants–and it is not–it remains illicit and unacceptable although it is, alas, an expected kind of prejudice.

It would be nice if the American athletes themselves who surely must note this simultaneous disparagement of their foreign competitors and their domestic audience would collectively protest and insist that in their races all competitors be introduced to the audience as they themselves are introduced, perhaps not in a duration of attention or commentary, but certainly in the minimum form whereby they can be seen and their names and countries known.  And after all, when it comes to American track and field athletes–as opposed to their European counterparts–American media outlets of every kind both visual and print completely neglect the sport and barely cover it at all even in Olympic and World Championship years.  But it is unlikely that contemporary athletes would challenge the network on the question of exclusionary coverage.

Yet, it would not require the courage and steadfastness of a John Carlos and Tommie Smith for today’s athletes as a community to pronounce dissatisfaction with the treatment of their fellow competitors.  And it wouldn’t even require the graciousness of one of the Olympics’ least mentioned but most deserving of heroes, Hugo Wieslander, second place finisher to Jim Thorpe in the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.  Upon the revocation of Thorpe’s victories and medals (he also won the heptathlon), months after the Olympics and, thereby, according to Olympic statutes carried out illegally, a revocation transparently motivated by racial prejudice, Wieslander– now declared the winner–refused this acknowledgement of victory and refused to accept a victory and a gold medal he had not won.  But from another point of view it required no courage or steadfastness at all by Wieslander, or shouldn’t have at any rate.  His graciousness, unusual as it might have been in relation to what most others would have done, is something that should come easily to anyone with even the minimal amount of ethical bearing.  I would like to say the same about the bearing it would take for the producers to show their audience all of the competitors in a race or for American athletes and audiences to insist that the producers do so.

Marion Andrew is a social and cultural critic who writes on sports and society.