copyright 2002, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 45

Men in tights:
sport and representation in the
2000 Olympics telecasts

by Mark Gallagher

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.

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.


[1]. In addition to coverage on NBC’s broadcast network, NBC cable affiliates MSNBC and CNBC provided extensive coverage of second- and third-tier events. Business Week sports-business columnist Mark Hyman offers a representative critique:

The Olympics generate plenty of their own drama and pathos. But NBC is going for the big boo-hoo about every 15 minutes. While its against-the-odds profiles of athletes are sometimes smart and edgy, too often they’re overly dramatized. (Mark Hyman, “Olympics Coverage: The Agony of Delay,” Business Week October 2, 2000: 108).

[2]. Garry Whannel’s Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation (London: Routledge, 1992) offers a thorough analysis of relations among media industries, athletes, and television viewers. Whannel’s book includes a detailed study of early-1980s print and television coverage of British track-and-field athletes, including middle-distance rivals Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, and the barefoot teenage South-African-turned-Briton Zola Budd. The anthology Out of Bounds: Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity (Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd, eds.; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997) also provides compelling perspectives on popular television sports, gendered spectatorship, and race.

[3]. Television sports producers and viewers apparently find little interest in the classical foundation of the discus throw and other field events, as these typically receive only cursory coverage during televised track-and-field competitions.

[4]. In the Sydney Olympics, the possibility of injuries was tangible. Because of the intense strain on muscles in sprinting, even the fittest athletes may pull a muscle at any moment in a race. In the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials, held about two months before the Olympics, the top two competitors in the 200-meter final, Maurice Greene and world-record holder Michael Johnson, were both felled by pulled hamstring muscles before the halfway point of the race. For viewers, this happens so quickly that replays are virtually essential for comprehension. Because the 200 requires runners to lean into a curve for its first half, such injuries are more common than in the straightaway 100. Nevertheless, in the 2001 World Championships, Greene pulled a muscle in the closing meters of the 100 final. Television coverage showed a look of panic and agony crossing his face as he struggled to a narrow victory.

[5]. For a thorough and stimulating discussion of viewers’ kinesthetic responses to displays of motion and activity, see Aaron Anderson, “Violent Dances in Martial Arts Films,” Jump Cut online (<>), and Anderson, “Action in Motion: Kinesia in Martial Arts Films,” Jump Cut 42 (1998).

[6]. Given Greene’s background, this is a substantial overstatement, if not an outright falsification. In the mid-1990s, Greene was a journeyman sprinter who had not competed at the NCAA Division I level, where most successful sprinters develop their skills and arouse sponsors’ interest. Apparently frustrated at his inability to reach world-class status, he eventually joined a group of sprinters coached by Smith. The commentary’s simplistic rhetoric suggests that Greene was a hard-luck case, rather than a talented and aspiring but sub-elite athlete.

[7]. NBC’s coverage of the 2000 Olympics ran well over 100 hours total, so a biographical segment on Greene may have appeared at a point missed by this viewer. In any case, such a segment did not appear adjacent to Greene’s most prominent performances, in the event’s semifinal and final races.

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