NBC had planned for us to care about Shaun White. The snowboarder — widely considered to be one of the best in the world — didn’t medal at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, so in preparation for 2018, he was semiotically outfitted with a tried-and-true sports story: the redemption narrative. White is a telegenic guy; he’s been a corporate-sponsored snowboarder since the tender age of 7, and won gold medals in both 2006 and 2010.
And yet White doesn’t have remotely the Olympic buzz of out figure skater Adam Rippon, whose charismatic skating, glittery costumes, and genial, hilarious post-skate interviews have made him into an undeniable sensation. Rippon, just a few years younger than White, almost didn’t make it to the Olympics; he finished fourth at nationals and made it on the Olympic team by the virtue of his past performances. It was a smart move by U.S. Figure Skating — not only did Rippon steal the audience’s attention, but he seemed to thrive under the gaze, making his way into the top 10 of the final standings and nabbing a team bronze medal. On Sunday NBC Sports announced the coup de grace: Rippon will commentate for the network for the remainder of the 2018 Games.
It has not always been easy to locate a sense of American pride over the past year, as an increasingly rancorous national debate has coalesced around the travails of the uniquely dysfunctional Trump White House. But during these Olympics, the national conversation has alighted on certain athletes as symbols of a future — and an identity — worth fighting for. White — accused of sexual harassment, and only grudgingly taking responsibility for that claim throughout the Games — isn’t it. Rippon — who made headlines before the games for refusing to meet Vice President Mike Pence because of the politician’s record on gay rights — unexpectedly, is.
We are in transitional times. The simplicity of sport is one of the reasons we are drawn to it; it’s a reprieve from the complications of day-to-day life. In an era where the daily news is crammed with devastating headlines, from politics and climate change to decades of institutionally sanctioned rape and an epidemic of mass murder, that escape is more potent than ever. That may explain why Olympics ratings have been strong — about matching with what the ratings were in 2014, despite a markedly changed television landscape since then. NBC Universal told Variety’s Brian Steinberg last week that they had surpassed their advertiser guarantees, which makes good on the $900 million worth of ad time the network sold around the Olympics.
And to NBC’s credit, the Games have been handled remarkably well. It seems like a lifetime has passed since the last few Olympics, but the respective games in London, Sochi, and Rio were plagued with frustrations, whether that was tape-delayed pivotal moments, over-edited segments, buggy streaming apps, or botched interviews. (#NBCFail became its own subgenre of the internet.) It was just in 2016 that Billy Bush and then Matt Lauer famously interviewed Ryan Lochte about his “robbery at gunpoint.” It seems that NBC has changed, and not just because Bush and Lauer have since been sacked. Bob Costas, legendary NBC sportscaster, is sitting out his first Olympic Games since 1988. The app appears to have produced far fewer complaints. And thanks to either an easier to navigate timezone difference or pure common sense, several keystone events of the Games (most importantly, figure skating) have been live on either NBC or NBC Sports Network, which makes them significantly more fun to watch.
But in the case of White, NBC seems to have underestimated, or willfully ignored, how the allegations of misconduct against the snowboarder would affect his Olympic profile — even though news of USA Gymnastics’ scandal of repeated sexual assault at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar would have been of great interest to the die-hard Olympic audience that the Games rely on. The Games are an escape, but even during escapes, audiences bring their brains with them. And it has been interesting to see which athletes are captivating audiences — and how they’re managing to do it. The Olympics are a recurring tradition, but the athletes competing in them are ever-younger — meaning that the Americans in PyeongChang are beacons of the future. Like 17-year-old Chloe Kim, who tweeted throughout her gold medal competition, and Red Gerard, also 17, who slept in the morning of his competition and somehow also won a gold medal. On Saturday, as Scott Hamilton and Tanith White discussed the American men’s figure skating team, they proudly discussed two Asian-American athletes (Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou) and Rippon, without any sense of token inclusion or bias: These were all equally American athletes worth celebrating.
On Wednesday Feb.14, Olympics ratings dipped for the first time this Games — possibly because it was Valentine’s Day, and possibly because that afternoon, 17 Americans, mostly teenagers, were killed in a mass shooting in South Florida. As Dan Wetzel reported for Yahoo Sports, pairs skaters Chris Knierem and Alexa Simeca-Knierem saw footage of the shooting just moments before heading out to the ice for their final competitive skate, the free skate. They did not skate their best, but afterward an emotional Simeca-Knierem dedicated their performance to the victims, and expressed her hope that she’d been able to offer the country a happy moment of skating on a sad day. “I wanted to lift the spirits of those who are probably mourning,” she said.
The PyeongChang Games are showing us evidence of a changing, and maybe already changed America — a less dominant one, in the medal count, but an apparently more compassionate one. It’s poignant to be admiring teenagers when at home we cannot protect them in their schools; it’s bizarre to watch “Olympic Athletes from Russia” compete, when Russia itself can’t have a presence at the Games — and can’t stop haunting American headlines. For so long, especially the Olympics, America defined itself by being better than the Soviet Union — more inclusive, more free, more powerful. Now that Russia is technically absent but constantly discussed, both at home and in PyeongChang, perhaps that is an opportunity to think of ourselves in a way that is about more than mere opposition. The Olympians — the gay athletes, the immigrants’ children, the tweeters and oversleepers, the winners and the try-again-next-years — are, with their typically brilliant light, showing us the way.