It’s always interesting when a competition in the Olympics doesn’t pan out exactly like the story NBC and the commentators have been trying to spin. They always sound so absolutely shocked and disappointed, and plagued with uncertainty. What’s the story now? Who is the hero? Who are we supposed to support as the clear winner now?
Today, when Gabby Douglas was performing, the commentators kept talking with wistful regret about how they’d wished Jordyn Wieber had made it into the All-Around finals. I don’t think it would have really made a difference; Gabby was very clearly the best gymnast in the room. I also don’t think this was any sort of intentional, or even unintentional, racism on the part of the commentators. It just didn’t fit the story they were trying to tell, and watching them struggle to come up with another one as the competition progressed was interesting. First they seemed to be favoring team captain Aly Raisman (the object of several celebrities’ recent attention), but it soon became clear that Gabby Douglas was the unquestionable leader (with Aly following close behind - you got robbed, m’dear!).
Still, the commentators tried to create tension by focusing on the threat from Russia, and finally seemed to find their center again during the floor exercise, when they finally declared Gabby an unequaled champion, something which her teammates clearly already knew, whether they were in the stands or on the floor. It was like the commentators were gymnasts who’d taken a spill on the balance beam and had to go through a parade of balance checks before finding the focus needed to dismount with style. Had they been more focused on narrating the incredible athleticism as it was and less on trying to come up with a relatable, manufactured story, they wouldn’t have floundered so much before the end. Yet another example of the athletes showing more sportsmanship and grace than the network covering their feats.
This is also true of any other sport in the Olympics when the unexpected happens and the network’s story has been interrupted: commentators are momentarily flabbergasted, and spend a minute or two reeling as they try desperately to pull together a new story that will look good when a montage is later edited together by NBC, which will, inevitably, circle back to its original hero. This is a network used to telling neat, finished stories with a beginning, middle, and end, after all. Changing a story suddenly right smack in the middle of everything is something new and frightening. You can lead a horse to water …