Saturday, March 6, 2010

A few more...

observations about the Winter Olympics, in particular NBC's coverage of it, before the whole thing retreats from our memories.

° Most of my most ardent feelings come from figure skating, because that's the winter sport I've followed the most closely. My brother and I used to watch it with our mother, and now I watch with my wife. When I refer to the broadcast team of Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic as a "train wreck," I do so based on some decades of watching figure skating.

I don't have the same points of reference for other winter sports. I really enjoy the biathlon because of its juxtaposition of cross-country skiing (a sport which, as a marathon runner, I can relate to) and shooting (which I can't relate to at all). To me it's like running as hard as I can for 15 minutes, then stopping to thread five needles as fast as possible, then running some more. (I also have to admit to a fondness for sports that are abstracted out of real things. One can see where the biathlon simulates something a soldier might have to do. Similarly, I have a great affection for modern pentathlon. Until figure skaters can shoot lasers out of their sequins, it's difficult to find the real activity there.)

But I don't "get" biathlon well enough to determine whether NBC's Chad Salmela is doing a good job. There's no obvious screeching about the mundane, no crying, and a reasonable amount of information (most of it about ski wax), so I'd guess he's doing OK. But I'm not really sure.

With skating, however, I know enough to know that we're being poorly served by the current analysts. Bezic and Hamilton offer almost nothing in the way of insight; it's just their emotions spilling out the airwaves, and I'm honestly not very interested in how they feel about things. As I wrote before, I want either information to help me understand the event better, or a sense of what it is to be there experiencing it for myself. I get neither from the screaming and the crying and the rampant self-indulgence.

The saddest thing is that NBC has better people on staff. Tom Hammond, a generally competent play-by-play guy in many sports, sinks to the level of his co-commentators. He could easily be replaced by Andrea Joyce (who's done a fine understated job hosting the Grand Prix events televised on NBC's Universal Sports) or Terry Gannon (who did figure skating for 14 years on ABC, understands the sport, and knows a lot of the players).

The Universal Sports coverage has been illuminating, as we have heard Joyce working with a few different color commentators, each of whom has surpassed Bezic or Hamilton. I only caught Michael Weiss once, but he, while unpolished, did a nice job and shows real potential. Paul Wylie gives a nice analytical look at what's going on. And Peter Carruthers, Joyce's most frequent partner, has become quite good. (Just a few years ago, he wasn't particularly good at all, talking way too much about a skater's "lack of concentration," but he's rounded into someone who can emphasize the important aspects of a routine without hyperbole or Hamilton-esque screaming.) Any of them would be better choices than Bezic/Hamilton.

º A lot has been made about the new skating scoring system. Very simply, they replaced a system in which each judge gave a mark for technical execution and another for artistry, with a system in which each element (jump, spin, step sequence) gets a value, then is judged as +3 to -3, and includes five presentation areas for which scores are given a 0 to 10 ranking. There are various weights given, the numbers are added together, and the score rolls out. (A more detailed treatment can be found here.)

[A word about the usual description of the system. It's often termed "mathematically complex." It's not. The system is based on multiplication and addition, and any reasonably smart 4th-grader could handle its complexity. What's complex is how the numbers are arrived at, and the motivation behind the calculations.]

What's odd is that they took a system which was faulted for a lack of accountability and transparency and replaced it with a system that has almost none of either. The scores that are used are not identified by judge, and the numbers they put down seem arbitrary.

The system does, however, replace two numbers per judge with a whole lot of numbers per judge, and demonstrates what I like to call the "false certainty of more data." Anyone who has seen a work performance evaluation system in which there are weights and measurements and defined criteria, all of which are used to come up with one number that reflects an employee's performance for the year, knows what I'm talking about. Each skater ends up with a whole bunch of numbers to look at, but that specificity doesn't imply greater accuracy. Any judge can still show systematic bias; instead of being clear ("The Russian judge only gave 5.2?"), that bias is buried under a mass of GOEs and base values and factors, but it can still easily be there.

º There was a lot made about the "world record" performance of Kim Yu-Na in winning the ladies' gold medal. Unfortunately, the code of points changes each year, the required elements change, and so forth. World records, national records, personal bests, all are meaningless within a system that revamps its rules each year. It's as if high jump records were kept, but the length of an inch changed each year. The records would be irrelevant, just as they are today in figure skating.

º Also in figure skating - there were some comments on the under-rotation of jumps, especially when it turned out that US hopeful Rachael Flatt had been marked down twice in her long program for failure to complete her triple flip. Bezic and Hamilton were indignant, arguing that the judges were "tough" on Flatt (indignation which seemed to come mostly from their inability to see it).

Here's the rule: if, upon slow-motion review, it is decided that the skater was more than a quarter-turn away from completing a revolution, the skater gets credit for the next smaller jump (a triple loop becomes a double loop, for example). The points are correspondingly less, so the skater will not score as high.

This debate is ludicrous. My feeling is that there shouldn't even be a quarter-turn leeway. If you complete three revolutions (not 2-3/4), you've done a triple. Anything less, it's a double. It's the only way figure skating can be considered a sport, not a dance on ice. There's no "almost" clause in any other real sport.

º Listening to NBC's coverage, one would think there was a new nation called "North America." Especially as the first week full of United States success gave way to a second week dominated by Canadian gold, there seemed to be a push to appropriate Canada's victories as, somehow, ours. This was particularly true in the ice dancing final, as a lot was made of the "first gold medal in ice dance earned by a North American team."

It may be noteworthy that Russia lost what was once a lock for a gold medal (only two exceptions, 1984 and 2002, versus 7 golds for various incarnations of Russia), but it isn't clear that "North America" has finally found the magic. The gold and silver medal-winning teams were coached by skaters who came up in the Soviet system, so it's not as if we've found some kind of capitalist magic. It hardly constituted a "Miracle on Ice."

And it isn't clear at all that, NBC notwithstanding, we in the 50 states should take a huge amount of pride in the victories of a non-entity called "North America."

º In general, I think that many of the problems NBC has in covering the Games is their omnipresent hope of finding a transcendent moment. We're supposed to believe that these athletes come to the Olympics and do the impossible (and NBC's there to capture it for us). Michael Phelps wins 8 gold medals in swimming and, despite the essentially repetitive nature of what he's doing, is instantly touted as the greatest Olympian of all time. Usain Bolt sets sprinting world records - because he happens to do it at the Olympics, he's an instant immortal.

In most cases, however, success comes as a result of long hours of mastering skills. Evan Lysacek wins an Olympic gold not by transcending human performance, but by strategically simplifying his program (by omitting an attempt at a quad jump) and executing it in a way he has hundreds of times before. You can respect his ability to perform under the exaggerated pressure of an Olympics, but you can't argue that he's doing something unprecedented. The same is true of pretty much every sport. Biathlon is impressive, but success is the result of untold hours of hard training and genetic fortune, not in willing one's self to ski faster and shoot better simply because it's the Olympics.

This is where commentators get themselves into trouble. Scott Hamilton (yes, him again) is fond of talking about "muscle memory," in which a skater does something almost automatically because they've trained the move again and again in practice. But, if that's true, then what accounts for Scotty's ecstasy at the landing of a "TRIPLE LUTZ...TRIPLE TOOOOE! Ohhhhhhh!" combination? These athletes do that every day, it just isn't that amazing.

Which brings us to Joannie Rochette (whose case I've already commented on). Her mother passed away two days before Joannie was to start competing, and NBC treated it like the most remarkable thing possible. How can she possibly skate? How can she go out there?

Here's how. She's done these routines many times. She's jumping and spinning using her "muscle memory," so her performance does not depend on being in the right frame of mind. If anything, her two routines constituted seven minutes in which she didn't have to think about her mother. It's NBC which needs to portray her performances as impossible.

I don't mean to minimize Joannie's pain. I lost my mother a few years ago; while we had an oft-contentious relationship, the pain I felt was still real. And now Joannie has to go through that, and, despite its being something most of us have to deal with eventually, I wish she didn't.

But we shouldn't ignore the context. Had she dropped out of the Olympics, no one would have blamed her, but NBC would at best have treated it as a footnote and moved on. Joannie would not have received thousands of texts and messages of support, she would not have become the icon of the Olympic spirit (and, of course, not been overscored in her long program). I'd suggest we take a moment and consider the kind of coverage an Estonian biathlete would have received in the same circumstance: pretty much none.

NBC has decided that the Olympic Games needs these kinds of over-arching narratives, these personal dramas writ large, and, as long as they arise in certain sports and from certain countries (how much attention did Petra Majdic receive for winning a bronze in the cross-country sprint immediately after falling and breaking four ribs and puncturing a lung?), they'll get the full focus of the network. And maybe they're right, maybe they do need the Tonya-Nancy kind of stuff to sustain interest as they grub for ratings.

But, occasionally, I find it kind of wretched, that we can't just be left to appreciate the effort and the training and the performance, that everything has to be augmented by heaping servings of bathos. Because it's a pretty fine line between admiring the pluck of a Joannie Rochette and shamelessly using her heartbreak to pull in the Nielsens.

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