[25 February 2010]
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
LOS ANGELES — As we move toward a digitally integrated world, here is something television can learn from the Internet: the power and beauty of silence.
There is much to love about the video portion of www.nbcolympics.com — the YouTube-inspired montages of the various spills, the primers on judging and rules, the fact that you can watch only what you want to watch and don’t have to deal with those irritating pop-ups telling you what the next event will be.
But perhaps the most striking advantage the Web site has over the network is the ability to run clips with no commentary.
The most memorable footage of the Games may be “Lindsey Vonn Unplugged,” a clip of her gold-winning downhill run. As Vonn later said, this was the moment to which she had dedicated her life. Her entire life, counted out not in coffee spoons but in hours, days and years spent on the slopes and in the gym harnessing muscle and bone into one tightly focused projectile — and all for an event that would last only seconds, and one governed by so many uncontrollable factors, the slickness of the snow, her bruised shin, the wind.
With no sound save the murmur of voices and the faraway cry of her fans, the clip shows Vonn as she prepares for this moment, slapping her thighs, stretching and bouncing, blowing out her cheeks, taking small but fierce breaths. Then she was off, a tiny figure against an impossibly wide and steep slope, and there was no need for a commentator’s opinion about speed or form, her past performances or her injured shin. The silence, broken only by the sound of her skis on the snow and the distant rattle of the fans, marked not just the thrill of it all but the solemnity.
Vonn’s victory is not the only one available with no commentary — winners including figure skater Evan Lysacek and snowboarder Shaun White can also be seen in blessed and powerful silence. After experiencing the natural arc of tension and triumph, free of audio manipulation, you realize that the cacophony of the televised events is a shock and raises the question: If the Olympics are a celebration of athletic excellence, of the human spirit triumphing over the limitations of the human body, why do we insist, like a bunch of preschoolers, on talking all the way through them?
It seems unfair to criticize sports commentators for doing what they’ve been hired to do, and certainly the irritation caused by a voice buzzing in your ear while you’re trying to watch people do extraordinary things is not limited to the Olympics. However, in watching the events in Vancouver on television, I find it hard not to befriend the mute button. For all its touting of the glory of the Games, NBC doesn’t seem to think people will watch unless an array of former athletes and TV personalities talks us through it.
Though the Olympics commentary was an alarmingly clinical recitation of past injuries that seemed at times to have replaced the Tragic Personal Back Story as the hushed-voice intro, the women’s figure skating short program on Wednesday put an end to that. With the tragic death of Canadian Joannie Rochette’s mother on Sunday, there was no denying the pathos of her extraordinary performance. But did we really have to learn, mere moments before each woman began to skate, about the death of Australia’s Cheltzie Lee’s friend three years ago or that Mirai Nagasu’s mother is battling thyroid cancer.
During the program, however, the figure skating announcers — Sandra Bezic, Tom Hammond and Scott Hamilton — were models of dignity and restraint, especially during Rochette’s performance, which occurred in silence, broken finally at the conclusion of her skating by Hamilton, who seemed to be speaking through tears.
In stark contrast, during the women’s bobsledding heats, Bob Papa and John Morgan could not shut up. And shockingly, the term “cat fight” came up at least twice in reference to the German team, who are, if you don’t mind guys, Olympians.
As anyone who’s ever watched a televised football game knows, most sports commentary is 95 percent blather and 5 percent insight, and the same is certainly true of the Olympics. Most of us don’t understand the nuances of curling or what the judges are looking for in a skater or snowboarder, and it’s nice to feel instantly informed.
But too often, the commentators are so busy talking, offering their own Olympic memories or the mini-Wikipedia entries of information provided them, that it seems like they are bored with what is actually happening. Which cannot be what the producers had in mind.
Even with the more restrained commentary, an air of participation inevitably creeps in — the commentator’s admiration and enthusiasm or, occasionally, anger and bewilderment become part of the experience, which then becomes more about entertainment than athleticism.
Which is OK — at one level, the Olympics is just another sort of television show. But if that’s what you’re going for, then why not liberate Morgan Freeman from the Visa ads (which are, by the way, really terrific this year) and have him in the booth? Freeman can inject a sense of drama just by saying the athlete’s name.
In a perfect world perhaps, the events would be allowed to unfold in silence, the commentary coming later with the replay when it isn’t a distraction. (This will also keep the commentators from looking like idiots when they are so busy praising a skier’s ability it takes them five seconds to realize that he or she just fell.)
As NBC has proved in these Olympics, the multimedia superhighway is up and running. Despite rumors to the contrary, television has nothing to fear and much to gain from all the screens it fills and inspires. But it should never surrender the silent and soul-heaving essential drama of sport to the perceived need of the chattering classes.
That’s what the Internet is for.