Covering the Olympics is like taking a car out for a drive every two years. You’d like to think that the engine will start up every time, but if it’s a machine that lies dormant for too many months in between, there’s no guarantee.
It’s not as if NBC and its various broadcasting partners haven’t been trying to prime their viewers for Tokyo 2020, but up to and through this version of the Summer Games, there’s been a vagueness to what the Olympics actually stand for. Is it a branding bonanza — a Trojan Horse for the bevy of Official Partners to talk up their cars, cleaning wipes, and exercise bikes? Is it a celebration of the virtuous pursuit of athletics? Is it a global symposium — a giant, two-week metaphor for international diplomatic relations (even if it’s one where you’re asked every Opening Ceremonies to “imagine there’s no countries”)?
The answer, of course, is yes. It’s all those things and has been for at least a handful of Olympics cycles now, the natural outgrowth of what Dick Ebersol’s vision for the Games was when the former NBC Sports president held the reins and what’s happened in the 10 years since he let go. The Tokyo Games, like their predecessors, have also introduced a textbook example of the Paradox of Choice: a rich bounty of viewing options that span platforms the average subscriber probably isn’t even aware comes with their regular package. But, to use a tortured sports metaphor, there’s still a glaring gap in coverage.
The biggest problem, whether it stems from perceived necessity or sheer indifference, is that NBC treats the Olympics like a giant television show. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, the Tokyo Olympics has been more about creating the illusion of sports rather than presenting the sports themselves. It’s an approach that foregrounds the famous athletes and events, supplemented by faces who obtain fame for winning heats after they fall down or for not being able to contend with treacherous weather conditions.
Even though this year’s Games are far from traditional — the ongoing global health crisis casts a long shadow — the network hype machine isn’t digging deep for unconventional stories. Instead, it’s reverted to the usual standbys: gymnastics, swimming, and track and field — probably because it’s far easier to craft an underdog story about someone who can run or swim the fastest than a rugby player or BMX champ whose skill is a lot harder to condense into a quickly digestible narrative.
Basketball and soccer have given some name recognition to those events, but in the immediate wake of the NBA Finals and Euros, the network has tried to distinguish its coverage by focusing on the novelty of sports unique to the Olympic Games. Like in their Winter counterparts, where ice skating, curling, and luge become headline draws despite barely moving American needles in the intervening four years, the Olympics can claim a weird sense of exclusivity over specific events without actually having to delve into any greater technical appreciation. It’s a fascination purely because it has always been a fascination.
The 2021 broadcasts have exposed inherent pitfalls in that approach. Athletes’ completely valid personal choices have left their respective events in the marketing lurch. The gold medal soccer match will be without the U.S. Women’s team. The most recognizable faces in the tennis draw finished off the podium. It’s become a fan convention without fans, a star vehicle without its stars. It’s not that the entire gamble has fallen flat, it’s that the whole operation’s backup plan hasn’t been able to address the fundamental void that those huge commitments to a certain version of the Olympics leave when it disappears.
As a stopgap, the answer has been to quadruple down on studio shows. “Tokyo Gold,” anchored by Rich Eisen, is a highlight-heavy rundown of the day’s events. “Tokyo Tonight,” with Kenny Mayne and Cari Champion taking the on-camera leads, has more of a freewheeling morning show feel. In both cases, rather than showcasing sports expertise or appreciation, there’s a weird overarching attitude toward the Olympics as a series of curiosities. The more familiar sports and athletes get unpacked as they would on any ESPN morning/afternoon talking-heads telecast, while the rest get lumped into a cavalcade of hazy pronunciations and sporting oddities. There’s a reluctance to meet the less popular sports on their own terms, instead trying to make them accessible and palatable for a hyper-casual watcher.
The nightly NBC primetime recaps focus more on the footage from the events themselves and get closer to giving viewers a concentrated taste of Olympic competition. But even then, they’re wedged between inspirational backstories primarily dedicated to athletes whose trade falls under the aforementioned marquee event umbrellas. Those have been Olympics staples for a while, presumably even more so now that rightsholders can’t fight the great Twitter DMCA whack-a-mole to keep the day’s biggest moments from leaking out online before they can be presented in the network’s chosen format.
It’s strange because for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, NBC Sports had an ideal antidote to all this. Nested away in the app was a daily program called GoldZone, which highlighted all of the medal-winning action from the day in a roughly hourlong chunk, sans any ironic detached commentary or gimmicky celebrity interviews. “Tokyo Live,” hosted by Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila, has come closest to filling that void in 2021, with live look-ins at different disciplines throughout the day. But even if that was this Games’ version of appointment viewing, it still has problems of length (Wednesday’s edition ran nearly four hours) and naming. (Sharing half a title with a handful of other shows on a menu around it creates a muddied mess all its own.)
On that naming front, Peacock certainly isn’t doing its Olympics coverage any favors. Search in the Peacock Roku app for Tokyo and the first thing that comes up is “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Elsewhere, the results page offers a WWE event, a Jeff Beck concert, and a Kylie Jenner reality series — but not a single result for live sports action. None of the studio shows mentioned above are even listed as options. Setting an algorithmic problem aside, to not flood your user base with your crown programming jewel in the only two weeks that matter is a giant missed opportunity. Of course, that’s not the method by which everyone is absorbing these games. Watching Peacock via Apple TV+ or an internet browser offers more immediate access, with Olympics coverage options listed as featured programs and an Olympics tab prominent atop each page. But it’s still a labyrinthine process to navigate through to individual events or figure out any comprehensive overall schedule.
If those self-inflicted challenges weren’t enough, Tokyo has been a showdown with the most inscrutable opponent: time. Already robbed of a good portion of the pageantry, the gigantic time zone difference between Japan and the Western Hemisphere has also robbed American audiences of the Games’ immediacy. There’s a long-conditioned U.S. method of ingesting sports: It happens either live or via highlight. Maybe some fans can revel in revisiting playoff games from years past, but short of an Instant Classic, rewatching tape-delayed events is largely seen as a relic of the days of, well, tape itself.
Even if the Olympics were built around a hefty viewership of people sifting through the archives, there are only two options for going back and watching what you missed, independent from the specialty recap shows. You can watch featured clips and uncut replays, neither of which offer an ideal viewing experience. Is it equal parts unsettling and soothing to see a static shot of an empty fencing venue, lit like the lair of a Batman villain, linger onscreen for 20 minutes? Yes, but it’s not exactly what fans are looking for. There should be room for a trimmed, condensed replay of these less-heralded events; one that makes it harder for individual watchers to put them on the same chopping block those nightly NBC telecasts do. Posting replays as though they’re uncut, behind-the-scenes “Big Brother” camera feeds points to part of an overall Olympics strategy that prizes raw data over user experience. It allows a corporate parent to claim a certain number of hours of available programming and another exponentially larger number of hours watched across all platforms.
What gets lost in the shuffle is an appreciation for the sports themselves. The Olympics has always been a bacchanalia of narrative, designed to draw in any relatives who would balk at the idea of watching cycling or equestrian competitions without any excess packaging. With something for the daytime talk show crowd, the “embrace debate” devotees, and the ceremonial grandeur enthusiasts, some of the most fundamental parts of the Olympics have been relegated to the broadcasting shadows.