It’s hard to propose talking about what’s generally going on in television this week without mentioning the enormous block of programming dedicated entirely to sports that seem, by and large, designed to make it easier to die in a dramatic, icy way. As the whole world knows now that NBC stupidly and tactlessly spent hours replaying the footage, one athlete died last week on a training run for the luge, and there have been countless spills and crashes already this week.
I deeply respect the accomplishments and drive of Olympic athletes, but as my own athletic feats tend more toward the book-carrying-through-the-stacks, sitting-still-for-many-hours-at-a-time arena, I am among the least capable sports commentators one could possibly imagine. Thankfully, then, I am pleased to report that the Olympics are also about something with which I have far more experience: narrative.
Take, for instance, Lindsey Jacobellis, a snowboarder whose bravado in the 2006 Olympics cost her a gold medal. Without fail, every sports headline featured her return to the 2010 Olympics as an opportunity for redemption, building a story arc into her career that assumes all sorts of things about Jacobellis and her performance (including, of course, the type of moral underpinnings that go with a word like ‘redemption.’) In returning to the Olympics, Jacobellis was given the chance to achieve a classic, cinematic resolution to her Olympic plotline, and when she was unable to complete the event (and actually disqualified from the race when she slid out of bounds), she fell out of the feel-good conclusion we want to get out of sporting events. She failed in her quest for redemption, and that is a much heavier burden than if that story weren’t laden with those narrative implications – in her first Olympics, she won a silver medal, and when she returned four years later, a mistake disqualified her from finishing. Not great, but hardly a tale of deliverance.
The inverse storyline of last night was Lindsey Vonn, whose narrative got an ecstatically happy ending after she overcame injuries to claim a gold medal in alpine skiing. I watched and was moved by how thrilled she was, how painful the other athletes’ wipeouts were, how impressive it is to hurtle yourself down a vertical slope and try as hard as you can to make yourself go even faster. But for someone who’s really not that into sports, the thing that fascinates me most is how readily these events slip into pre-packaged plotlines. Sporting events are a space where narrative and real-life lay right on top of each other. Because there are conclusions, firm endings, unambiguous victors, and real-life heroes, the Olympics is a moment where we can label someone’s life a failed redemption narrative and not immediately get caught up in irony, subtlety, or doubt. It’s no wonder there are countless adaptations of famous moments in sports – the event comes preloaded with all the required narrative paraphernalia.
None of this is new or original observation, but it has seemed especially pertinent during these games. It’s not just that the sports themselves are nearly always dangerous, and thus lend themselves to drama and high-stakes. In California, the programming is tape-delayed (even though it’s happening in our time zone! NBC!!! *fist shaking*), and although the local news makes the results available before NBC actually airs the events, the news anchors let you stay in the dark if you so desire. “If you don’t want to know the results of tonight’s Olympic sports,” says a big, silver-haired news guy, “just turn away from your television. We’re going to play some music here, and when the music stops playing, you’ll know it’s safe to look back.” In other words: spoiler alert! Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how the story ends!
And that’s really why I watch the Olympics. Even though I intellectually understand that it’s just a ski race and I can look the results up online, if someone shouts “spoiler alert!”, I’m always on board.