JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The top three finishers— Greene, Bolden, and Obadele Thompson of Barbados— share their victory with their faces mostly hidden from view. Their private huddle ocurs in a hyper-public setting.

This second replay of the finish is shown from the position of a distant stadium spectator. From this point the race’s outcome is indecipherable.

The trackside “rail-cam” captured this view of the finish. Because of his speed, Greene’s body nearly leaves the frame on the right. Note also the extreme blurring caused by the combination of the racers’ very fast running speed, about 23 miles per hour, and the camera’s relatively slow filming speed.

The race’s third replay, a bird’s-eye view of the field is the only shot in which all eight athletes are visible. Consequently, it’s the only shot in which we see Abdul Aziz Zakari of Ghana stumble and fall.

A return to rail-cam view, this time in slow motion, allows viewers to study the leading athletes’ movements and relative positions in the race’s final meters.

A zoom-lens shot, replayed in slow motion, focuses viewers’ attention on Greene’s visible exertion. However, in this shot, although his arms appear periodically in the frame, much of his body is not visible. Thus viewers cannot observe his sprinting mechanics.

A personal narrative is reintroduced as Coach John Smith joins a visibly moved Greene for the post-race interview.

Greene and Smith embrce on a global stage. In this emotionally rich moment, both men’s faces are hidden from the camera’s view.

Again attempting to hide his emotions, Greene pauses, kneels, and covers his face before embarking on a victory lap.

The coverage concludes with a shot of Greene, his composure regained. He addresses the camera in familiar nationalist terms but inflected in his own appealingly idiosyncratic way. Greene says, “USA, baby, number one, I love you!“

Many of the replays here use slow motion, particularly to extend the time span of the race’s final moments and Greene’s crossing the finish line. The isolated frontal view of Greene, shot from near or beyond the finish line, presents a portion of his race entirely in slow motion. The frontal view also hints at interiority, through the head-on unimpeded view of the runner’s face and upper body which comprises most of the screen space. Other replays use slow motion to capture the final strides and the narratively significant moment of victory. Paradoxically, the slow-motion photography expands a segment of the race in which the athletes already move at their slowest rate. Elite 100-meter runners reach their maximum acceleration near the midpoint of the race, then decelerate slightly as they approach the finish line; the winner simply decelerates less than the other competitors. Similarly, slow motion videography reproduces the athletes’ release of muscle tension at the conclusion of the race, thus granting proportionately less emphasis to the period of maximum exertion and of visible athletic prowess.

Repeated emphasis on the race’s final meters lends the coverage a precise narrative emphasis, asking viewers to contextualize the event in terms of victory and defeat rather than rely on the more amorphous and unconventional realm of their kinesthetic response. However, aside from the repeated punctuation of Greene’s victory, the multiple versions of the finish offer little of visual or narrative interest: Greene’s lead is pronounced well before the final meters, so only uncertainty over who will secure the second and third spots generates suspense. The event’s coverage obscures this secondary narrative, though, as the replays offer only truncated views of the runners trailing Greene. Similarly, to maintain a premise of coherent, uninterrupted space and time, no cross-cutting among camera positions occurs during the initial view of the race or during replays. Each replay shows the full duration of the race, with some time dilations as noted. Lack of editing promises authenticity and lack of mediation: the NBC producers appear to deliver objective sports journalism to viewers. However, such an implicit promise belies the replays’ reconstruction and expansion of time, the zoom and wide-angle lenses’ construction of images different than those produced by the human eye, and the shots’ focus on the central figure of Greene. Overall, despite the use of multiple camera positions and replays, the coverage aims for simplicity and ease of apprehension, largely eliminating the visual complexity that on-site spectators experience. As noted earlier, watching track sprinting in person can be an exhilarating but also frustrating experience, owing to the high number of participants, the often-narrow margin of victory, and the breadth of the observer’s field of vision, even from the most proximal vantage point. In addition to simplifying the overall event, the finish-line emphasis facilitates the network’s construction of the event as a linear narrative with a single protagonist.

NBC’s coverage transforms the final round of a multiple-day competition among men, governed and recorded by hundreds of officials and technicians and surrounded by tens of thousands of spectators, into a narrowly proscribed, manipulable display. The coverage reconfigures a sporting contest of high cultural significance into a pro-televisual event, that is, something conceptualized in advance only for its televisual potential. The race becomes a showpiece of individual exertion with clear narrative parameters and relevance principally in terms of sports history and statistics. Through NBC’s visual filters (camera positions, lens choices, and playback speeds), editing, and implicit and explicit narration, the televised event carries considerably different meanings from the live event. Because far more viewers witness the event on television than in person, this mediated coverage produces the dominant understanding of the event itself. As a result, the in-person spectator experience gains a rarer cachet, intriguing because of its very elusiveness.

Nevertheless, the television coverage successfully relays—and to some degree constructs—the emotional impact of the actual event. The formal structure of the television race coverage establishes boundaries between action and emotion. The race and its replays represent action, and the subsequent interview, with the victor known and his coach’s efforts completed, provides a forum for emotional responses. In addition to their other functions, the multiple replays, varied camera positions, and variable-speed filming distinguish race sequences from the visually static post-race interview. Consequently, technical choices reinforce distinctions between the physical spectacle of the race itself and the pronounced emotion of the post-race sequence. As noted earlier, race replays focusing on Greene’s face introduce a psychological dimension to the race itself, but only in the later interview segment does the attention to interiority produce an explicit, legible response from the men involved. Even here, as already noted, the coach and athlete’s emotions are registered through absence—the absence of dialogue and the turning of their faces away from the camera.

The multiple reproductions of the race do little to enhance viewers’ understanding of the labor involved, either in the event itself—as seven of the eight competitors receive increasingly less attention on screen—or in the years of preparation required to reach the Olympic final. Instead, the multiple replays attest principally to the surveillance capacity of the NBC crew and its equipment. Significantly, the manufacturer of the so-called rail-cam, the Wescam Corporation, does business principally in supplying surveillance technology such as closed-circuit video cameras to the military, law-enforcement agencies, and corporate and industrial clients. Even in the open-air Sydney stadium, the company’s technology carries disturbing implications: the fastest men in the world cannot outrun its gaze. Paradoxically, the panoptic display of the Olympic race coverage supplies viewers with a progressively narrower visual and experiential frame for the event, finally erasing the efforts of the other athletes entirely. Even the post-race interview with Greene, while capturing his spontaneous emotions and offering a view of his previously unseen coach, provides no further depth of coverage with regard to the race itself or to its winner. The mediating figures, NBC’s play-by-play announcers and the trackside interviewer, offer no commentary or inquiries about the quality of the race, the competitors’ efforts or relative position, or the outcome. Similarly, other than broadcasting the embrace between Greene and his coach that occurs during the brief interview, the coverage fails to distinguish athlete or coach in any way, beyond mentioning Greene’s hometown and asserting that Coach Smith “turned [Greene’s] life around.”[6]

Given the extensive buildup to the final race and the network’s promotion of the figure of Greene, the omission of a reasonably detailed biography of the sprinter is remarkable.[7] The Olympic event includes four preliminary rounds, with the faster athletes in each round advancing. Greene’s prospects were noted in each round, in the dutiful pro-U.S. manner of the NBC coverage but also appropriate to his status as the current world-record holder and the previous year’s world champion in the event. The impending event final and Greene’s featured role in it were also promoted multiple times during each day’s many hours of television coverage, in station breaks and in the between-event segments hosted by Bob Costas. For the most part, NBC’s athlete profiles were characteristic of the staged, leaden biographical segments that network sports coverage has increasingly featured since the 1990s, ostensibly as a means of drawing female viewers.

In broadcasts of international sports generally, U.S. network coverage of U.S. athletes inevitably reduces the contemporary world’s most capable physical performers, men and women with complex life histories, to easily apprehended icons of national pride. Surrounding the men’s 100-meter event, NBC’s coverage foregrounds the presumably collective desire to “bring the medal back to the U.S.A.,” as if an Olympic medal were a sacred, historical relic wrongfully appropriated, like the Elgin Marbles or the body of Kennewick Man. (U.S. men had not won the event since 1988, when Carl Lewis received the gold after initial victor Ben Johnson of Canada was disqualified following a positive test for steroids.) The reframing of the event in terms of the U.S., as a matter of course in U.S. television coverage, neutralizes the cultural power of the athletes themselves and effaces the contributions of the myriad social and economic interests they represent. The representations of Maurice Greene in Olympic coverage, for example, neglect the familial, social, athletic, and corporate support networks that contribute to his success. What remains is yet another image of a hard-working individual’s achieving solitary greatness on a mission of national service. Fulfilling the implicit expectation of NBC that began the coverage, Greene joins past U.S. winners of the event in that venerated historical space of the “record books,” memorializing him publicly yet also closing him off further from social understanding. Just as the opening montage of athletes suggests that Greene has already won, thus making his actual effort almost incidental, Greene’s victory grants him a fixed, historical status that reduces his agency in and relevance to the contemporary social and political world.

Television networks’ process of reduction and fixity assumes a particularly troubling cast in the case of track-and-field sprinting, football, and basketball, sports overwhelmingly dominated by black male athletes. In such cases, a loosely defined alliance to individual glory, national pride, or a corporate-owned team apparatus obscures competitors’ positions within an economic system that exploits their physical labor and pain and a social system historically disadvantageous to blacks collectively. Only the occasional criminal act, spousal-abuse allegation, or drug charge disrupt the comfortable fictions of individual achievement and team loyalty. Sports-media coverage of such transgressions, as with news coverage of African-American men generally, often exaggerates individual acts into symptoms of collective amorality, thus affirming stereotypes about black men’s penchant for violence and criminality. Even in amateur sports, television coverage eliminates any evidence that corporations and media industries systematically exploit human efforts. Progressive challenges to these effacements of labor and historical context—e.g. recent efforts to unionize collegiate sports such as football—either do not occur or have no forum for recognition in broadcast media.

The most significant, if temporary, rupture of NBC’s scrupulously managed coverage of the men’s 100-meter final occurs in the event’s post-race interview segment. Such segments generally function to permit unscripted reflections from competitors, though the predictable format tends to elicit carefully rehearsed platitudes and uncontroversial rhetoric. In this case, the presence of both Greene and Coach John Smith for the interview generates unconventional remarks from Greene and a protracted display of emotion and male intimacy. Before breaking down in tears, Greene articulates his desire that his performance will serve as compensation for the former Olympian Smith’s failure to win a medal in the 1972 Games, or in Greene’s metaphor, to “put something in there” to fill a gap in his coach’s heart. While such language of penetration and bodily contact is endemic in sports, Greene refers here to his personal relationship with Smith rather than to an aspect of the race itself. Greene’s choice of words is unusual, but his language follows from a familiar athlete/coach dynamic, the mutual investment in the athlete’s body. Greene puts his body into service for another man and in this case uses that body’s abilities to compensate for what the other man lacks.

By televising the wordless embrace that follows, NBC renders an intimate, emotional exchange hyper-public and hyper-visible. After a brief interval of relative silence, the stadium crowd begins cheering, responding to a transmission of NBC’s camera shot on a huge stadium screen and presumably applauding Greene’s simultaneous capacity for exceptional footspeed and visible sensitivity. Literally, then, the crowd cheers a public display of male intimacy that cameras and monitors represent as enlarged spectacle. The intimate display is implicitly sanctioned by the paternal quality of the coach/athlete relationship and the general acknowledgment that Olympic champions tend to embrace their friends and competitors. For example, immediately after the race Greene is shown energetically hugging his fellow medallists. Still, the high visibility and the relatively long duration of the embrace between Greene and Smith explicitly challenge U.S. cultural anxieties surrounding non-aggressive physical contact between men. The televised shot is visually not dynamic, as both men’s faces are partly obscured during their embrace, and the medium close-up position restricts the view of other aspects of the setting, providing a limited mise-en-scène. Still, the very unmanageability of the moment in terms of sound, image, and content indicates the capacity of human subjects to circumvent the narrow frames of televisual representation and address even under rigorous surveillance.

One of the pleasures of television sports coverage generally—and the nearly three weeks of Olympic Games coverage in particular—is the profusion of unscripted moments of intense drama and emotion, produced by raw athleticism and by athletes’ responses to sudden victory or defeat as they perform on a world stage. Media critics and the general public routinely bemoan U.S. network Olympic telecasts for their narrow focus on a range of likely U.S. medallists in sports known to draw viewers, sports including basketball, swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. U.S. viewers seeking a wider perspective sometimes turn to coverage produced by Canada’s CBC network, which is more objective almost by default. That is because Canada fields dominant athletes in far fewer sports than the U.S., and so the network covers the overall event rather than focusing on individual stars. Nevertheless, U.S. coverage musters the most substantial technological, economic, and human resources of any nation. Rather than cursing NBC’s shrewd manipulation of public appetites—although this is periodically a worthy and satisfying endeavor—we might continue to examine ways such telecasts reshape the world of human sport in alluring, disturbing, but always significant forms.

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