Five-ring Circus

The Olympics Sap-o-Meter

Slate’s scorecard of NBC sentimentality makes an emotional return.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Olympics are undoubtedly television’s sappiest event. Two years ago, Slate developed a tool to determine, once and for all, the exact sap quotient of NBC’s sticky, gooey Games coverage. The results of our two-week tally: 722 sappy words, 98 utterances of mom, 97 dreams, and one description of gymnast Shawn Johnson as “like a kid on the best of Christmas mornings.”

After that fortnight of schmaltz, the Sap-o-Meter needed 18 months off to recharge. But now—just in time for the Vancouver Games—the Sap-o-Meter is tuned up and ready for NBC’s biennial sugar rush. In 2008, we counted the mentions of 33 sappy words during the network’s prime-time Olympics coverage. This time around, we’ve dumped hardship, Olympic-sized, and miracle—the first two appeared just once each during NBC’s 2008 coverage; a Winter Games full of references to the “ Miracle on Ice” would likely skew the count for the latter—and added five new, family-friendly words to the sap dictionary: dad, father, son, daughter, and patriotic. For those who want to play along at home, here’s thecompletelist of 35 sappy words that we’ll be counting up: adversity, battled, cancer, challenges, courage, cry, dad, daughter, death, dedication, determination, dream, emotion, father, glory, golden, heart, hero, inspiration, inspire, journey, magic, memory, mom, mother, overcome, passion, patriotic, proud, sacrifice, son, spirit, tears, tragedy, triumph.

Before we go to the scoreboard of sap, a few methodological notes. The Sap-o-Meter records one Sap Point each time one of our magic words get spoken during NBC’s prime-time Winter Games programming. The Sap-o-Meter does allow for some subjectivity: If a sappy word gets deployed in a non-sappy context—a discussion of the inspiration for a segment of the opening ceremony, for instance—a Sap Point will not be awarded. Also note that since we’re working from closed-caption data, which contains the occasional typo and sometimes skips over words, we are unlikely to catch absolutely everything.

Now, on to the first-ever Winter Olympics Sap-o-Meter scores. Friday’s opening-night telecast alternated between reports on the shocking death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and sweeping views of Vancouver’s opening ceremony. This confluence of genuine tragedy and made-for-television pageantry sent the Sap-o-Meter into overdrive, generating an all-time record 68 Sap Points. (Another factor contributing to that total: NBC’s mammoth five hours of first-day coverage.) The night’s leading words, tied at six mentions each: dream, heart, journey, and magic.

Shockingly, NBC’s Bob Costas et al. were not the biggest contributors to Friday’s record sap count. During his opening-ceremony speech, the Vancouver Organizing Committee’s John Furlong lit up the Sap-o-Meter like a pinball machine. Our inaugural Sappiest Line of the Day, courtesy Mr. Furlong, tallied an impressive seven Sap Points on its own: “As the Olympic cauldron is lit, the unique magic of the Olympic Games will be released upon us. Magic so rare that it cannot be controlled by borders. The kind of magic that invades the human heart touching people of all cultures and beliefs. Magic that calls for the best that human beings have to offer. Magic that causes the athletes of the world to soar—and the rest of us to dream.” (Emphasis on sap words is ours.)

On Saturday, the Winter Games’ first night of competition, NBC doted on a quartet of American stars: speed skaters J.R. Celski and Apolo Anton Ohno and moguls skiers Hannah Kearney and Shannon Bahrke. In fine Olympic tradition, the athletes’ proud mamas and papas—including Celski’s anxious parents, who watched their son nearly bleed to death in September—earned nearly as many mentions as their offspring. Aided by four mentions each for dad and mom, the Sap-o-Meter registered a healthy 33 Sap Points. Saturday’s Sappiest Line of the Day, via NBC’s short-track play-by-play man Ted Robinson: “There’s Yuki Ohno, the ever-present single father who raised Apolo and spent many weekends driving his son from Seattle the 150 miles or so north here to Vancouver. This is the city where Apolo learned to skate.”

NBC closed out the weekend with luge, moguls, pairs figure skating, and dreams. Lots and lots of dreams. Proving that sap is an international language, the peacock dropped a stunning eight dreams into a short feature story on the Chinese skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. (“At 31 and 36, they should be past their skating prime, but their Olympic dream persists.”) Thanks to 14 dreams in all, Sunday’s coverage came in at a sickeningly sweet 53 Sap Points. Shen and Zhao were also the subject of the Sappiest Line of the Day, uttered by NBC’s Tom Hammond. “On this Valentine’s Day,” Hammond intoned, “their story is essentially a love story, but also a story of courage and of dedication and of determination, too.”

Please check back with the Sap-o-Meter over the next two weeks as we continue to catalog NBC’s hopes, dreams, and moms. The bar graph below affords a closer look at the 154 sappy words that appeared during the Olympics’ opening weekend. You can double-click on any segment to zoom in on a particular word. You can also send your suggestions for the Sappiest Line of the Day to