Olympic athletes perform amazing feats, but the Games' commentators have a daunting task, too. Whether they're trying to convince American audiences to watch very lean Nordic men ski a lot and stop to shoot things or a kid who looks like a renegade Weasley brother and has a private corporate-sponsored lair in which to perfect snowboarding tricks, they have to explain what these odd sports are and how they're judged. They have to introduce us to the people competing in them and convince us why we should care. And they must fit all these explanations into a huge variety of formats and pacings.
To take just one sport out of the 15 categories of events in this year's Winter Olympics, commentators have to explain not only that it's impressive that tiny girls can work up enough speed to do three spins in the air and land without falling down, but that it's much harder to do that if you take off while going forwards as opposed to going backwards, and that you can earn more points if you launch yourself after the halfway point in your long program. And that breakdown doesn't even get into the fact that the Russian and American men's figure skating teams are sniping at each other over whether the only way to prove that you're a real man is to spin yourself around in the air four times.
Even if you master figure skating, it doesn't get you very far. Knowing that American two-time men's figure skating gold medalist Dick Button thinks that Russian 2010 silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko looks like a movie villain will not unlock the mysteries of the Flying Tomato, Lindsay Vonn's shin injury, or the Norwegian curling team's now-famous harlequin pants.
Olympic announcers talk too much and dwell too much on personality. But they aren't entirely to blame for their own failings. In the space of a few weeks, it's impossible to teach a fairly general audience the kind of deep knowledge of all those disciplines that audiences acquire over years of watching sports with major fan bases, like baseball, football, and soccer. That knowledge is a necessary precondition to deciding which athletes you like—who is an undeniable talent, who has style if not necessarily greatness—and is the stuff of which happy squabbles between friends, and between us and our televisions, are made.
When we watch the games we truly care for, announcers exist not to educate us, but to give us the pleasure of confirming our convictions or to be condemned as knaves and fools when they disagree with us. Good commentators are our fellows, not our superiors: they hold their breaths along with us as we wait together for critical pitches to reach the plate, and as we see if a risky pass will find its way into a receiver's hands. Olympic announcers, whether cattily narrating figure skating or fully in the tank for Team USA are always a bit removed from the rest of us. They're trying to teach us while we're trying to experience awe.
And it's not just what they say, but when they say it that's problematic. Unlike in baseball, where the pitcher's windup provides natural space for commentary, or football, where the huddle and move into formation serve the same function, it's not always clear where explanation and argument fit best into each Olympic event. Replays during bobsled and luge work fine, as does explanation during the inevitable messing around before halfpipe snowboarders commence their runs. But there's still more information than can fit neatly into those spaces, and the biographical short films that frequently run in those transitional moments often extend them painfully, interrupting the events' momentum.
Slowing the broadcast down is a particular problem given that so many events are broken down into heats and multiple rounds of competition. Get caught up in the story of how Canadian speed skater Cindy Klassen's sister suffered a tragic accident, and you might forget the names and styles of the Czech and German women who beat her in the 3000-meters, not to mention her countrywoman Kristina Groves. Running nothing but heats doesn't leave a lot of room for discussion of technique or competitive dynamics, but leaving heats out creates incomplete competitive narratives.
Some of the commentating I enjoyed best in this Winter Olympics came in the men's 30-km pursuit in cross-country skiing. Without a major American competitor, or a great-power rivalry at stake, NBC didn't bother to air biographical segments on the competitors during the event, which ran almost without interruptions (other than commercials) during the day on Saturday. That benign neglect freed up the announcers to explain the techniques and strategy of the sport as Sweden's Johan Olsson skied an unprecedented race and his teammates moved to block his competitors to allow him to build a lead.
And when Olsson lost momentum in the long race's final stretch, and his teammate Marcus Hellner moved up to claim the gold medal, shutting out Norway's Petter Northug and claiming temporary advantage in the regional rivalry for Sweden, the announcers approached hoarseness in their excitement. It may not have been Harry Cary-caliber commentary, and it may not have been a television moment to match Bob Costas's probing interview with then-President George W. Bush . But in under an hour, they'd managed to teach me how to watch what was happening on screen, and to convince me that it mattered.