Rio 2016: NBC Slowly Realizes Women Are the Olympic Stars

Ryan Lochte's juvenile antics throw the accomplishments of the American athletes into sharp, beautiful relief

Wednesday night on NBC, the network’s Olympics coverage shifted away from sporting events to focus on the rapidly imploding story of 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. The swimmer, who won a gold medal in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay in Rio de Janeiro, has struggled to stay on top of a mugging story he told his mother that has since snowballed into an international incident.

Officials in Brazil, eager to protect the nation’s reputation as a safe one for foreign travelers, are now contending that the mugging never happened, pointing to footage from a gas station and from security at the Olympic Village. And while Lochte made it back to the U.S. without incident, two of his teammates were detained in Rio for further questioning about the possibly false claims of a crime.

NBC anchors Bob Costas and Matt Lauer discussed Lochte’s story with a gravity usually reserved for armed insurrections. Their tone was in stark contrast to everything else about the bleached-blond 32-year-old, an active tweeter and E! celeb who, in addition to a dozen Olympic medals, might best be known for the catchphrase “jeah” (which he tried, and failed, to trademark). Even the story of the mugging is farcical; the way he tells it, when a mugger pointed a gun at his forehead, Lochte’s response was, “Whatever.”

Lauer and Costas were trying to bridge the gap between international incident, celebrity gossip, journalistic integrity, and the unabashed pro-American bias the network brings to its Olympics coverage. All things considered, they acquitted themselves pretty well; in some ways, because Lochte wasn’t present, it was easier for Lauer and Costas to frame the situation appropriately. (Lochte has proven to be skilled at digging himself ever-deeper.) Costas, in particular, is an anchor who has managed to retain integrity despite being embedded in a news organization that at times feels like circus music is playing in the background.

Although it was, and still is, very funny that Lochte’s story appears to have been a terrible and mostly harmless fabrication, the seriousness with which NBC approached it was a reminder of how historically and culturally significant the Olympics are — and, arguably, should be, given how much money and time is devoted to its expression of global unity. And the blowup around Lochte, just a few days before Rio 2016’s Closing Ceremonies, has been a stark reminder of just how much the world has changed — and how NBC, as the arbiter of the American narrative of the Olympics, occasionally struggles to keep up.

One of the reasons NBC always seems to be scrambling during the Olympics is because every winter and summer Games is a biennial trial-by-fire with completely different circumstances, whether that’s not enough snow in Sochi or a massive time difference to Sydney. Furthermore, the team of commentators, talking heads, and on-the-scene producers only get three weeks every two years to do what they do. It makes for a motley crew, sometimes; Rio 2016 was populated by a surprising number of winter sports athletes, including figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who introduced audiences to carnivale, and snowboarder Shaun White, who was there to… talk about his music, I guess? Add to that the network’s strangely prevalent cutaway to Ryan Seacrest, hanging out on Copacabana Beach for some reason, and the American presence in Rio felt like a hastily assembled theater troupe.

So while I dinged the network last week for how it chose to broadcast the team gymnastics competition, I’ll allow that as Rio 2016 has progressed, NBC’s coverage has grown more confident. It specifically gained facility switching from live events to taped events to accommodate the slim one-hour time difference between Rio and the East Coast. Furthermore, as the hectic initial flush of excitement about the games wore off, the coverage settled into actually sticking with a sport for hours at a time, providing that lived-in experience with an obscure sport and far-flung countries’ athletes that is so essential to the Olympics.

But despite that, gymnastics continued to present a problem for NBC — both practically and, dare I say it, semiotically. Gymnastics is a sport that Americans only tune into en masse once every four years, and furthermore, the stars are the women, not the men. It fits into a typically feminized pursuit of externally determined perfection, which was even more pronounced in the days when a gymnast could actually score a perfect 10.

NBC’s chief marketing officer John Miller created a bit of a stir in advance of the Opening Ceremonies when he said that female viewers, who tend to watch the Olympics (and, I’ll add, are drawn to gymnastics), want to watch not a sporting event but a reality-TV miniseries. It’s not exactly news that a marketing executive might sound reductive and patronizing about a demographic, but Miller’s remarks belie just how significant female viewership is for Olympics ratings.

It also gives lie to the type of narratives around female athletes that NBC might deem palatable for its audience. The network and its ad partners have been very invested in creating media narratives for the American women gymnasts that appeal to a domestic demographic — Proctor & Gamble, and in particular, Tide, focused on Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas and their relationships to their mothers for a recurring spot. (Indeed, given how difficult NBC made it to actually watch the gymnastics competitions in primetime, it was actually easier for children with a pre-11 p.m. bedtime to watch Biles in her Tide advertisement than it was to watch her win her four gold medals.) This pointedly housewifely framing is in sharp contrast to the history of gymnastics, which like hockey was a proxy for Cold War tensions.

And this fuzzy sentiment has spilled over freely to the male commentators. During the balance beam final earlier this week for example, commentator Al Trautwig aww-ed over Dutch competitor Saane Wevers, who grabbed a pink notebook immediately after finishing the fantastic beam routine (which would eventually win her the gold). He said that he could only assume it was a diary to gush over her own performance. Color commentator Nastia Liukin, an Olympic gold medalist herself, corrected Trautwig — pointing out that Wevers, who is 24, was using the pink notebook not to pour out her girlish thoughts and feelings but instead to calculate her score. (Trautwig, to his credit, took it in stride.) And just Thursday night, NBC commentator and golfer David Feherty described Majlinda Kelmendi, the 25-year-old judoist that snagged the first ever gold for Kosovo, as “some daddy’s little girl.” (This was after he implied, charmingly, that he watched women’s beach volleyball primarily for the bikinis.)

NBC wants to both showcase women athletes and attract female viewers, but it’s guilty of doing so through condescension. It’s puzzling, because while some Olympian women are still teenagers, most, especially American ones, are young disciplined women in their own right. Of course parents and partners are important, but it’s the women themselves that are not just essential to the Olympics but are in fact, the entire draw for viewers.

Because the real story of this Olympics — and maybe of this era of Olympic Games — has been about the women. At New York Magazine, Ann Friedman wrote about how the Olympics has been proof positive of the Shine Theory — that notion that individual women succeed when all women succeed. That’s a notion that is, of course, antithetical to the entire concept of the Olympics, which is about competition and one-upmanship. And yet this Olympics has been flooded with women from many different countries who are, in stark contrast to the epic feud between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, not just friendly but actively supporting each other. The most iconic image from this Olympics might be not any winner on a podium or a champion seizing victory but American runner Abbey D’Agostino helping up New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin during a qualifying heat for the 5000m.

And this narrative of feminine cooperation is especially significant given that it’s been an incredible Olympics for African-American women in particular, from Biles’ stack of medals and history-making swimmer Simone Manuel to the U.S. team sweeping all three medal spots for the 100m hurdles. In comparison to the buffoonery of Lochte — and the open sulking of Michael Phelps in warm-up — you have Katie Ledecky cheering on Manuel and Aly Raisman and Biles holding hands, hugging, and crying as results were called.

It’s moments like this that make the Lochte story stand out in such amusing contrast; the seriousness and sportsmanship of the women, in comparison to what might be egregious idiocy, if not an outright crime, on the part of four male swimmers. As these Olympics close, the careful treatment of Lochte suggests that maybe NBC is finally understanding where the future of these games are. Not with the cavalier, empty-headed jocks, blond or otherwise, but with these heartfelt and disciplined women, who seem to inherently understand the context and importance of the Olympic Games. At the very least, based on the expressions on Matt Lauer and Bob Costas’ faces, we have a very clear idea of which Olympians can be taken seriously, and which ones are destined to be forgotten.

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