Five-ring Circus

What NBC Got Right in Pyeongchang

The network’s coverage of the women’s downhill was Olympics television at its best—authentic, empathetic, and thrilling to watch.

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21:  Bronze medallist Lindsey Vonn of the United States celebrates during the victory ceremony for the Ladies' Downhill on day 12 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Jeongseon Alpine Centre on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Bronze medallist Lindsey Vonn of the United States celebrates during the victory ceremony for the Ladies’ Downhill on day 12 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Jeongseon Alpine Centre on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from NBC’s coverage of Alpine skiing, it’s that the mountains can be ornery. Weather conditions deteriorate. A slippery or uneven section of the course might splay your limbs. A gate can “burn out” your skis. In a sport where any one of a thousand different variables can determine whether you land on the podium or in the hospital, there’s no such thing as a sure winner. Mikaela Shiffrin and Marcel Hirscher, overwhelming favorites to win gold in the slalom, both finished off the podium in Pyeongchang, with the Austrian not even completing his first run. The Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka, meanwhile, won the women’s super-G despite not being a full-time skier. (On Saturday, she captured her second gold, in parallel giant slalom snowboarding.)

Given the sport’s innate unpredictability, it feels appropriate that NBC’s telecasts of the Alpine events at the 2018 Olympics alternated between transcendent and … less transcendent.

I’ll start with the good stuff. These Winter Olympics, especially in the second week, have been larded with fantastic moments, from Jessie Diggins’ thrilling sprint for gold to Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s brilliant shootout goal. My favorite four minutes of the games, though, came on Tuesday night, during NBC’s broadcast of the women’s downhill.

At 9:12 p.m. EST, the network showed a close-up of Lindsey Vonn in the starting gate. NBC had been building towards this shot all week, and rightly so. Vonn is one of the United States’ most-decorated winter athletes, and this would likely be her final Olympic downhill—her last shot to medal in her signature race. This was also a comeback story: Vonn had missed the Sochi Games in 2014, and she’d worked for four years to get back to the Olympics. And if that wasn’t enough, she was skiing to honor the memory of her late grandfather, who’d been her most steadfast supporter.

I’ve criticized NBC before for excessive narrativizing—for “favor[ing] a dramatic backstory over drama on the slopes.” But in this case, the network didn’t gild the Olympic lily. The backstory wasn’t a stretch—Vonn had her grandfather’s initials on her helmet—and the drama on the slopes wasn’t manufactured, as the American star was favored to win gold.

A minute before Vonn took off down the hill, analyst Bode Miller—a six-time Olympic medalist, who, in an on-camera interview with NBC in 2014, was pressed about his dead brother until he cried—described what Vonn was likely feeling in that moment.

Everybody says that the pitcher’s mound is the loneliest place in sports—I would argue that point. I think the Olympic start gate is probably the most lonely place. You have hundreds of millions of people all focused on you, and … there’s no one who can help you. You’re alone at that point, you’re fully exposed, it’s what you can do, and you’re just—you’re raw. And I think Lindsey enjoys that. She’s thrived under that situation. But if you try to think about that at home, there is no posturing, there’s no acting. She is raw emotion out there, and she’s going to give it everything she’s got.

Miller’s incisive, insightful words were the perfect accompaniment to NBC’s visuals. Thirty seconds later, both Miller and play-by-play man Dan Hicks laid out, making way for the sound of Vonn’s deep breaths and her team’s exhortations.

This was an incredible piece of broadcasting, a master class in using video, natural sound, and narration to build anticipation. And then she was off.

Miller, rightly, said Vonn needed to be running ahead of Italy’s Sofia Goggia after the third split if she was going to win. She wasn’t, and she didn’t. (Vonn did hang on for a bronze medal.)

After the race, Heather Cox asked her about her grandfather. She cried, in a way that felt unforced, and did her best to look back at her long career. “I gave it my best shot, you know, I tried so hard and I worked my butt off,” she said. “It’s sad—this is my last downhill. I wish I could keep going, you know. I have so much fun. I love what I do. My body just can’t—probably can’t take another four years.”

If NBC is going to turn the Olympics into reality television, then this was reality TV at its best: authentic, empathetic, and thrilling to watch. Compare those few minutes to how Vonn’s race played out on the generic world Olympics feed, in which she appeared on camera with no preamble, charged down the course, and then left the screen again as dozens more racers took their turns. By laying it on just a little bit thick, NBC added breadth and depth to Vonn’s performance, doing justice to an Olympian who deserved every second of camera time she got.

On the slopes at least, this was unquestionably NBC’s gold-medal performance in Pyeongchang. In a couple of other instances, the peacock finished way off the podium.

NBC has taken the most criticism for its mishandling of last week’s women’s super-G, the race in which Ledecka—racing in the 26th position—took gold after NBC had already declared Anna Veith the winner. The headline on Deadspin’s subsequent post: “How NBC Flubbed Its Coverage, Reported the Wrong Gold Medalist, Then Botched the Correction of One of the Most Stunning Upsets in Olympic History.”

Although Deadspin was right to call out NBC for declaring the proceedings over and done with, Hicks wasn’t going out on a huge limb in saying Veith had the winning time. Vonn, who’s seen pretty much everything there it to see in her racing career, said she was “disappointed but … not upset” to finish in fifth place in the super-G—this before Ledecka knocked her back to sixth in the standings. Still, the network shouldn’t have said the race was finished when it wasn’t finished. This was a lesson Hicks clearly took to heart, as he didn’t make any such pronouncements during subsequent events.

There was another iffy moment, however, during NBC’s airing of the women’s super-G. When the network finally got around to airing Ledecka’s run, Hicks declared she “came down the hill, Bode, just a short time ago and shocked the world.” Miller then jumped in: “And doing it on Mikaela Shiffrin’s skis, keep in mind. That is a key element to look at here.”

This was an amazing tidbit: a second-tier racer roaring to victory with the help of a champion’s equipment. But after the race, Shiffrin’s mother, who doubles as her daughter’s coach, said it wasn’t true—that “Ledecka had most likely chosen her skis from a batch the manufacturer Atomic provided to a number of racers.” Ledecka, for her part, told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden, “I’m not sure which skis I’m using.”

USA Today’s Josh Peter got another take on the situation from a spokesperson for the U.S. Alpine team:

Megan Harrod, press officer for the U.S. Alpine team, said the Atomic skis Ledecka used were originally from Shiffrin’s “quiver,” a term referring to a collection of skis competitors get from their ski makers. From that quiver, Harrod said, unused skis get handed down to other athletes “when certain athletes aren’t using them anymore.”

Given the differing stories here, it’s not fair to say Miller got it entirely wrong. Then again, he certainly didn’t provide the clearest picture of what had taken place, and he arguably left viewers with the impression that Shiffrin had given her skis to Ledecka as a personal favor. Miller appears to have made another misleading statement a few nights later, during Shiffrin’s run in the women’s combined. In the video embedded below, you’ll see the American star fall well behind the pace of leader Wendy Holdener—“Wow has she lost some time!” said Hicks—before catching up and moving into the lead. (Shiffrin would end up finishing second, behind Michelle Gisin.)

Just after Shiffrin crossed the line, Miller said he wasn’t buying the on-screen graphics. “I think the split in the middle time was wrong,” he explained. “You don’t see a one-second swing.” Hicks immediately affirmed his colleague’s view. “Had to be a timing error to lose a second like that in a few gates,” Hicks said, chuckling.

Looking back, it seems likely that there wasn’t any kind of timing error. The intermediate splits on the NBC Olympics website and the official results sheet match the numbers NBC showed during the race. A spokesperson for Omega, the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games, also told me that the “intermediate times for the Ladies’ Alpine Combined are correct.” A look at the splits for the top racers shows it wasn’t Shiffrin’s numbers that were anomalous—it was Holdener’s. The Swiss woman performed remarkably well in the middle of the course, besting Shiffrin by more than a second. In the final stretch, though, Shiffrin got most of that time back.

An NBC Sports spokesperson told me, via email, “Our commentators believed that the discrepancy was the result of a timing anomaly, which are rare but occasionally happen.” It’s understandable that they believed as much—the figures on screen were really jarring. It’s less easy to understand why Hicks and Miller didn’t revisit their claim, one that changed viewers’ perception of how Shiffrin won her silver medal. They could’ve dug into the numbers and explained whether they thought their initial perception held up. Instead, they just moved on.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, and maybe it is. I also want to make clear that I don’t think Miller is the worst sports commentator who ever lived. He clearly knows a lot of stuff about skiing, and his observations have made me a smarter viewer. You can never control for all the variables in a live sports broadcast, or even a time-delayed sports broadcast. It’s incredibly rare that everything—the announcers, the production, and the athlete’s performance—syncs up as well as it did during Vonn’s downhill run. But the best announcers, like the best skiers, can adjust mid-run and fix their errors. At its best, NBC’s Olympics coverage was very good. At its worst, it crashed into obstacles rather than surmounting them.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Shaun White Is a Flawed Champion. NBC Turned Him Into a Faultless Snow God.

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis Deserved the Redemption Narrative NBC Gave Shaun White

John Shuster and His Team of Curling Rejects Just Wrote the Perfect Ending to Their Underdog Story