During the televised pre-race introductions of each competitor, the coverage lingers on favored Maurice Greene, who acknowledges the cheering stadium crowd.
Fellow U.S. finalist Jon Drummond is introduced, seen with his characteristic steely gaze, directed both down the track and at the camera.
As Kim Collins of St. Kitts-Nevis is introduced, he smiles excitedly, appearing thrilled by the event’s scope. His smile partly challenges the NBC coverage’s overall tone of seriousness and gravity.
Still before the race, an on-track cameraman frames a low angle view of Greene, lending him Olympian proportions and creating a dramatic backdrop out of stadium roof and night sky.
A close up of Drummond changes to a two shot as a pacing Greene enters the frame. In this shot, the focus literally shifts from Drummond to Greene.
As the athletes position themselves in the starting blocks, only Greene is shown in isolated view, accentuating the coverage’s star focus.
Just before the race starts, we see a conventional long shot of the assembled competitors.
With no cuts from the previous long shot, the camera pans to follow the athletes, showing an initial view of the race’s finish.
Following two replays, a slow motion shot isolates the victor Greene’s reaction
The camera frames physical contact between Green and Trinidadian silver medalist Ato Bolden, who the coverage repeatedly proclaims is Greene’s “best friend.” This phrasing locates the moment within an appropriate realm of male homosociality in sports.
Men in tights: sport and representation in the 2000 Olympics telecasts
Sporting enthusiasts, armchair patriots, and an array of regular television viewers gather every four years to witness contemporary Olympic Games. It is a multinational pageant and showcase of athleticism and commercialism where competitors in dozens of sports vie for individual and national glory, corporate advertisers savor the prospect of heightened television viewership, and network management enjoys the corollary promise of increased advertising sales. To broadcast the Games, television producers worldwide deploy creative and technical resources to shape more than two weeks of nearly continuous events into a manageable, appealing package for an array of localized audiences.
The sheer volume of Olympic events far outstrips the time available to televise them. However the Games are packaged, the result invariably raises criticisms from aficionados of particular sports, media commentators, and viewers generally whose interests conflict with what television stations offer. U.S. television coverage of the summer 2000 Olympics, produced by General Electric’s NBC network, was roundly criticized both during and after the Games by print-media organs and regular viewers. They decried its delayed telecasting, its convoluted scheduling, and its soap-operatic focus on a narrow range of U.S. athletes at the expense of other competitors and of event coverage generally.
NBC’s coverage of the Games and the subsequent criticisms of it raise many questions about the role of corporate-controlled television industries and of international sport in a media-rich world system. This essay interrogates the dynamics of representation surrounding coverage of one of the Games’ marquee events, and one of its most expeditiously executed, the men’s 100-meter final in track and field. At first glance, one might not find much worth noting in such coverage. Athletes line up, gun goes off, the camera pulls back to show us the race, we’re treated to perfunctory slow-motion replays and a brief word from the winner, and we return to the NBC studio before moving along to another segment. Yet these few minutes out of the hundreds of hours of Olympics broadcasts reveal much about contemporary televisual style, the careful programming of sports events, and the ideology of their presentation.
Why choose this event for analysis? Outside the Olympics, televised running events historically attract relatively small audiences in the U.S. As a lifelong runner, I have long scoured the airwaves for distance-running and track-and-field programming. I’d watch coverage of major marathons such as Boston and New York or telecasts of track competitions such as the NCAA or national championships. These events are often condensed greatly for television. A road race of more than two hours rarely gains high ratings, and it is thus edited for delayed broadcast in a 30- or 60-minute time slot. Comparatively speaking, because track meets move from event to event and competitor to competitor, they typically lack the dramatic arc that lures viewers to televised sports. Yet in terms of displaying uninterrupted speed and physical exertion—with athletes’ bodies on full view, not concealed by full-body uniforms or augmented by equipment—running events are arguably without parallel. Basketball and football showcase eye-catching athleticism, but time-outs of various sorts necessarily impede their rhythms. Sports such as baseball, soccer, and cycling gain their allure partly from a tactical rather than a spectacular dimension. Sports such as swimming and hockey impede viewer identification to an extent because participants wear caps, goggles or helmets. (Obviously, there is some overlap among these categories.) Even a graceful and visually arresting sport such as diving, memorably captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad (1936), requires a degree of connoisseurship to determine which athlete is the most proficient.
Like many other sports, sprint running takes on a new dimension in televisual representation. Seeing it in person is often exhilarating, but is also difficult for spectators at the track to absorb. Although the competitors begin side by side, they move across a wide field of vision with extreme speed, making it hard to focus at once on more than one or two of the usually eight competitors. Many spectators at sporting events have found themselves wishing for an instant replay for clarification. For track aficionados, this sensation is almost de rigueur. (Having lived seven years in Eugene, Oregon, long a mecca for American track fans and athletes, I often attended track events with great excitement, then found myself rushing home after televised meets to watch the videotaped coverage of what I’d just seen live.) In this essay, I try to examine what makes television’s transformation of actual events compelling and in some respects preferable to the in-person experience. What does the media apparatus contribute to or eliminate from the experience, and what are the broader cultural implications of this reshaping of the event?
Track and field, which is televised only sparingly throughout the year, is one of the signature events of the Olympic Games. In each Olympiad, for example, the women’s and men’s marathons bookend the Games, occurring on the first and last days of Olympic competition. In addition, in multi-sport competitions such as the Olympics, the Pan American Games, or the British Commonwealth Games, the sport of track and field (along with the marathon road race) is often designated simply as “athletics.” The appellation indicates track and field’s universality as a signifier of human performance. A classical track-and-field icon, Myron’s 5th century B.C. sculpture “The Discus Thrower,” also supplies the connotative foundation for the ancient Greek Olympiads. During the summer Olympics, television coverage of track events reaches millions of viewers who are not otherwise devotees of the sport (just as, for example, figure skating in the winter Games arouses public interest among millions of viewers who are not otherwise skating enthusiasts). But while some sports demand additional commentary or expertise on the part of viewers—for example, sports with complex scoring systems, such as figure skating and gymnastics; or less well-known sports, such as water polo and the ski-and-shoot biathlon—many televised track events offer clear and visible parameters for victory. Whoever runs fastest, jumps highest or longest, or throws farthest wins. The 100-meter dash is perhaps the most easily apprehended event of all. Aside from false starts or photo finishes, the event’s outcome is evident ten seconds after it begins.
For television producers, the challenge of the 100-meter race is not only to use multiple cameras to keep fast-moving athletes in the frame and in focus but also to generate and sustain dramatic tension for a competition that lasts about as long as a single play in a three-hour football game. Pre-race coverage provides part of the drama. Telecasts often replay competitors’ performances from earlier rounds or previous meets and provide shots of the finalists arranging themselves in the starting blocks. This latter imagery often lacks visual appeal, as we usually see competitors removing their sweats, adjusting their shoes, or bowing their heads to pray or focus mentally. In the race itself, any error or injury has immediate results. Hence the announcer conventionally utters, “It’s a clean start,” if no athletes jump the gun (when this happens, officials restart the race). Aside from lane violations, there are no post-race disqualifications. Even in a sprint race in which the athletes never make contact—unlike distance races of 800 meters or longer, in which many competitors may jostle to secure a prime lane position—a poor start, sudden stumble, or ill-timed muscle pull can change the result. Also, because the margin of victory is so slight—often only a few-hundredths of a second, measurable in a few feet or even inches—even the favored athletes must rely on the fortuitous convergence of all race elements to ensure victory.
NBC’s telecast of the Sydney Games 100-meter final combines venerable narrative elements with formal sophistication. The coverage utilizes advanced production techniques—particularly in editing, camerawork, and replay technology—while adhering to patterns of action, drama, and character conventional to television. Despite the extensive spatial and temporal manipulation of the live event by on-site crews and by studio technicians, the assembled coverage offers viewers a more streamlined and accessible experience than an actual, on-site experience permits. Consequently, the television coverage’s reconstruction of space and time not only enhances but indeed determines the event’s significance and coherence. This conclusion in itself is not particularly revelatory. Many if not all viewers recognize the transformative and manipulative powers of the television medium. What is striking here, though, is the content subject to transformation. The event is a contest of absolute human speed that invokes classical ideas of bodily aesthetics as well as contemporary signifiers of human strength and body construction, embodied by professional athletes, in this case, eight black men.
NBC’s coverage of the event final begins with a nearly illegible graphic-and-text montage featuring archival footage of a series of U.S. men’s Olympic champions in the event—Jesse Owens from the 1936 Games, Bob Beamon from 1968, and Carl Lewis from 1984, all African-Americans—and without transition, a fourth subject, Maurice Greene, who had not yet won nor even competed in an Olympic event in the time scheme of the tape-delayed coverage. Event coverage did air about sixteen hours after the completion of the actual event, or many hours after Greene’s victory appeared in U.S. morning newspapers’ sport headlines. However, I have found no evidence that event coverage was re-edited later for dramatic emphasis, as occurs, for example, in capsule coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race. Still, his premature and pre-win image subtly offers Greene’s—and by extension, the U.S.’s—victory as a certainty. Nationalist biases routinely appear in local coverage of international sports, but NBC’s graphic implication of a U.S. victory seems unprecedented.
My central question here is this: What constitutes the meaning and viewer pleasure of this particular televisual event? Approaching the coverage from the perspective of film and television studies, I find that the track final’s significance derives from its combined narrative and spectacular properties. In terms of its story properties, the event offers a paradigmatic master narrative: Men battle to cross a fixed point. Such an inherent dramatic quality, intensified by the extremely short duration of the event itself—approximately ten seconds—tends to overwhelm other narrative properties. Indeed, NBC’s coverage adds virtually no further dramatic element beyond the construction of eventual winner Maurice Greene as the star of the event and the possibility of Greene’s achieving a world record. Ultimately, in the race itself Greene wins a clear if somewhat unremarkable victory, and the overall competitors’ times are not particularly fast. All the athletes have run marginally faster in previous competitions or in earlier Olympic rounds. Consequently, NBC’s coverage omits all references to the winning times or to the competiveness of this particular race, except for one passing remark immediately following the race and a text graphic listing the finish times and places at the end of the coverage.
Notably, the event coverage’s narrative intensity is wholly compartmentalized. Partly owing to the race’s brief duration, the coverage situates the dramatic emphasis principally outside the frame of the event itself: before and after the race. Just prior to the race, separate views of each athlete—seven extremely tense men and one incongruously smiling one, Kim Collins of St. Kitts-Nevis—suggest considerable unarticulated dramatic tension. Most of these men receive no further reference, and none but Greene reappear in close-up. The coverage repeatedly returns to both frontal and rear views of Greene strutting, pacing, and bouncing nervously. Then, the race itself is shown, with Greene winning, and after brief shots of the three medallists crouching and embracing, six replays of the race appear, all from different vantage points. Following this series of putatively realist, high-speed surveillance shots, most of which visually attest to Greene’s victory, the NBC producers turn to a new area of narrative interest through a trackside interview with Greene and his coach, John Smith. In this phase of the coverage, a visibly moved Greene offers a paean to his coach and then becomes speechless. The interviewer turns to Smith, who praises Greene before he, too, is overcome with emotion. For many seconds—nearly as long as the race that has just been televised—athlete and coach embrace publicly, heads turned away from the camera, with a tight medium close-up framing them against the crowded stadium interior. What is particularly interesting here is the powerful if somewhat visually unmanageable spectacle of male intimacy, which will be discussed later. Following this visually static and dialogue-free but emotionally intimate exchange, coverage returns to the conventional routine of Olympic events’ conclusions. The coverage ends with an extreme long shot from above showing the nighttime stadium, overlaid with an authoritative graphic listing the competitors’ names, finish order, and times, followed by a return to NBC’s Sydney studio for a serving of Bob Costas’ affectless asides.
This television coverage of the Olympic track final carries particular significance in the way it represents male physical activity, which lets us see that activity’s mediation by cinematic and televisual technology. Professional sport generally appeals to viewers partly because it offers the spectacle and drama of high-caliber performance in events in which amateurs may also participate or have participated in the past. While few of us can relate specifically to the experience of contesting in a world-class sprint race before thousands of spectators, we can experience a scaled-down version of the event during an energetic morning jog, or perhaps during a panicked sprint across campus to arrive on time to teach a class. Professional spectator sport, then, offers a relational pleasure, predicated on psychological responses to visual phenomena. Kinesthetic sensations can complement the psychological response. That is, while our bodies may not be configured like those of Olympic sprinters, we respond to the physical exertion displayed in terms of our own experiences of maximum physical effort. Gender differences and expectations partly determine this viewing response. To some degree, men’s and women’s responses depend upon the extent to which women have historically been allowed to participate in the sports on display. For example, and at the risk of essentializing, one might expect to find on average that most women’s kinesthetic responses to a football game would be less pronounced than most men’s. This differential would be due to the kinds of socialization practices surrounding boys, football, and similar recreational activities that involve tackling and rough physical contact. In the case of track sprinting, though, one might presume a more evenly distributed kinesthetic response among men and women viewers, regardless of the sex of the competitors.
What, then, to make of the kinesthetic pleasures of the Olympic sprinting final? In some respects, NBC’s coverage, through its panoptic and repetitive qualities, encourages maximum visual appreciation of the event and its competitors. The replays repeat the race from multiple vantage points, most of them unavailable to human spectators at the location. The first replay, from a camera positioned near the starting line, most closely apprehends the ground-level perspective of an immobile spectator. Yet from this viewpoint, the race’s outcome is almost entirely illegible. Next, a side-angle view of the moving athletes shot from a remote-controlled tracking camera moving on a chest-level rail positioned just at the edge of the track provides the closest and visually densest view. In this case, viewers follow the event at the athletes’ pace. Here the athletes’ relative position is most clearly visible, and thanks to the blurred imagery of the passing background, their apparent ground speed is as well.
The mobile tracking camera or “rail-cam,” introduced to the sport during NBC’s 1996 Olympics telecasts, represents the most recent substantial advancement in television coverage of track-and-field events. In producing a proximal view of ongoing action without the flattening effect of the zoom lens or the reduced perception of speed caused by panning, the tracking side view from the mobile rail-cam encourages viewers’ greater kinesthetic response than is gained by other available camera positions. However, network producers’ chief goal in terms of images seems to lie in maximal visibility for a star competitor rather than the visually dense shot of athletes moving rapidly in profile. The tracking side view’s appeal lies less with the conventional long-shot and zoom-lens perspectives on most television sports and is closer to interactive video games such as NBA Jam or Tomb Raider, which offer players eye-level perspectives and closely-framed action. In practice, the almost overwhelming proximity of the rail-cam shot, even on the television screen’s small scale, can disorient some viewers. The rail-cam’s framing also visibly avoids the singular star focus gained by other camera positions. The replays that follow this race first show the favored athlete Greene’s position at the center of the track. Subsequent shots narrow the view further, through zoom shots that provide a medium close-up of Greene isolated from the other competitors. This kind of zoom to a medium close-up can register one person’s effort alone, particularly capturing his strained facial expressions and powerful arm and shoulder movements. In contrast, in the side-angle shot, Greene is not centered in the frame but mostly appears at screen right. While he literally sets himself apart from the pack, part of his body momentarily touches the frame’s right border, reducing his visual emphasis.