On Tuesday night, NBC primetime viewers were treated to an Olympics performance for the ages. American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin came from behind to defeat fellow American and defending Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad in the 400-meter hurdles, capturing the gold medal and setting a new world record in the process. The race was both extremely exciting—all three medalists, including bronze medalist Femke Bol of the Netherlands, set new personal bests with their finishing times—and a big moment for the U.S. Olympic team.
To its credit, NBC did make an effort to get viewers excited for the 400-meter hurdles on Tuesday. Mike Tirico kicked off the evening’s primetime coverage by spotlighting McLaughlin and Muhammad, setting up their head-to-head matchup as a race that wasn’t to be missed. When their event came around, a brief pre-produced video got viewers hyped, and play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey evinced suitable excitement. “When the best two athletes in the world in any sport are pushing at the limits of greatness, the net result is something extraordinary,” said Diffey. He’s right, of course. So why hasn’t NBC made more of these extraordinary athletes—not just on the day of their events, but over the course of the entire Tokyo Games?
By all rights, McLaughlin, Muhammad, and 800-meter gold medalist Athing Mu, who also won gold for the U.S. in her event on Tuesday night—the first time an American woman had done so since 1968—would have made for excellent breakout stars of the Tokyo Games. All three are telegenic, diverse, and extremely talented within their events, which exist as part of a sport that is one of the marquee sports at every Summer Games. And yet, as far as NBC has been concerned, the three American track stars and many of their cohort have been but momentary diversions from the real story of the Games: Whatever Simone Biles is or is not doing at any given moment.
Biles is a transcendent star and her emotional journey has been the story of the Tokyo Olympics. But the American track stars who excelled on Tuesday also had credible claims for their stories to also be the stories of the Games. Instead, they have labored in relative obscurity as NBC has focused much of its coverage on swimming, gymnastics, and swimming and gymnastics. The disparity between the quality of the track athletes’ performances in Tokyo and the quality of the television coverage that they’ve received this year has been frustrating and confusing. If the Olympics are, as I’ve suggested before, primarily a television show, then why does NBC have such consistent trouble turning American track stars into main characters?
One ongoing issue is the track and field events’ placement within the Olympic programme. Whereas swimming and gymnastics get started right away, the track events are traditionally scheduled during the back half of the Summer Games. This quirk of scheduling gives America’s swimmers and gymnasts a first movers’ advantage when it comes to publicity, as NBC obviously derives more value from promoting athletes whose exploits can be enjoyed immediately than from promoting people who won’t even perform until Week 2. But why can’t they do both? you ask. Why can’t they promote the Week 1 stars while also foreshadowing the Week 2 stars? That’s a fair point! The answer this year, I suspect, is that they probably did have a track star lined up for coverage—right up until they didn’t.
I’m talking, of course, about the frustrating absence from Tokyo of American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was a serious contender for gold in the 100-meter dash until her qualifying time was invalidated after she tested positive for marijuana use less than a month before the Games began. (In the wake of her positive test and subsequent 30-day suspension, Richardson was passed up by USA Track & Field for a spot on the 4x100–meter relay team.) Despite the fact that her Olympics ended before they began, Richardson has nevertheless been a familiar face in commercials during the Olympic broadcasts, suggesting that NBC had perhaps planned to make her the designated track star for 2021. Her late-breaking disqualification likely left NBC in the lurch, at least somewhat; while the network could certainly have adjusted its journalistic coverage to emphasize other American track stars, the ad campaigns and puff pieces and other publicity mechanisms that work to turn elite athletes into Olympic heroes are produced well in advance of the Games, and cannot easily be reconfigured on very short notice. It’s likely that COVID-19 concerns and restrictions also would have made producing new promotional segments within weeks all the more difficult.
As far as hero-making goes, it’s also worth noting that swimming and gymnastics have a structural advantage relative to track in that regard. Whereas the top track stars compete in one, maybe two events over an entire Olympics, the top gymnasts and swimmers each Olympics compete in multiple events spread out over multiple nights. This means that NBC can produce teasers and create suspense over the course of a week, encouraging viewers to familiarize themselves with and get invested in those top swimmers and gymnasts. One big reason why NBC worked so hard to make Caeleb Dressel a capital-T Thing these Olympics is that the network knew it would be able to get a lot of mileage out of him over the course of a full week. As great as Sydney McLaughlin is, her lone event in Tokyo was over in less than a minute.
That said, it’s certainly not as if NBC can’t give the star treatment to a transcendent track talent, as its coverage of all-time great Usain Bolt in previous Games made clear. Bolt’s prominence and popularity also suggests that NBC doesn’t even necessarily need to focus its coverage on American track athletes. The network surely could have made more this year of Elaine Thompson-Herah, another telegenic Jamaican sprinter and transcendent who won both the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter dashes this year, just like she did in Rio in 2016. Sure, Thompson-Herah might not be as big of a star in America as Bolt was. But Olympic athletes generally don’t become stars if television doesn’t take the time to tell their stories.
Quantity of events is certainly not the only reason why Caeleb Dressel became a Tokyo Games Thing while Sydney McLaughlin, at least this year, just had to settle for setting a world record and winning a gold medal. NBC very much wanted to make Dressel the new Michael Phelps, in part because I think the network has forgotten how to promote an Olympics without a Phelps figure on whom to pin its coverage. Phelps competed in five straight Summer Olympics, and won a ton of gold medals in four of them; along the way, he single-handedly made America’s dominance in men’s swimming a continuing storyline in a way that hadn’t really been true since the halcyon days of Mark Spitz. The Tokyo Games are NBC’s first Phelps-less Olympics since before Sydney McLaughlin was born. As a fundamentally conservative entity, of course NBC was going to try to create a new swimming hero to pick up where Phelps left off.
Dressel may or may not actually be A Thing yet, but he certainly had a fantastic Summer Olympics. But so have a lot of American track stars, and it’s incumbent on NBC to recognize this. Despite the shock of Richardson’s absence, several of the incredible and medal-winning runs by others whom we’ve seen at these Games were foreseeable. In light of what’s happened, the network needs to rethink the manner in which it covers the sport and its most talented domestic competitors. It’s easy to try and explain away the NBC’s relative indifference to Olympic track and field this year by saying that America hasn’t really had a breakout Olympic track star since Michael Johnson. But that explanation elides NBC’s own role in creating breakout Olympic figures, in choosing whom to hype for the entire Games and whom to promo for part of a single night before refocusing attention on diving.
McLaughlin is only 21 years old, and her incredible performance Tuesday night suggests that she might be the sort of generational track star who might show the sort of long-term dominance that NBC likes to see from its quadrennial heroes. But she’s certainly not the only could-be star on the American athletics roster. On Wednesday night, for example, American primetime viewers watched three male American sprinters compete in the finals of the 200-meter dash. The outcome of the race was already known before airtime: Canada’s Andre de Grasse took the gold, edging out silver medalist Kenny Bednarek and bronze medalist Noah Lyles. Bednarek and Lyles are both Americans, as is fourth-place finisher Erriyon Knighton. Bednarek is 22 years old, Lyles is 24, and Knighton is only 17. It’s too late to give them the Caeleb Dressel treatment this year, but I hope NBC gives them their due in 2024. The three of them, alongside Mu, Muhammad, McLaughlin, and a whole bunch of other American track athletes, could be stars in the making, if only NBC wanted to see them that way.