It’s All That Glitters: Contextualizing Canada’s Obsession with Gold

Day Two: It’s All That Glitters

February 14th, 2010

At times watching CTV’s Olympics coverage, I swear I’m watching the third Austin Powers movie: all that glitters is gold, and anything else is a crippling disappointment.

Now, this is the case for all countries: everyone wants their athletes to win gold, and there’s always disappointment when that doesn’t quite pan out. However, the hoopla in Canada at the moment is to a degree normally associated with our Men’s Hockey Team, as the nation rallies together in a quest to place enormous pressure on athletes to earn the nation’s first gold medal on home soil. In fact, the narrative is so pervasive that even NBC picked up on it heading into tonight’s Moguls event, demonstrating that one nation’s obsession is another nation’s bit of trivia.

The problem for CTV is not that Jennifer Heil failed to win a gold medal in the Women’s Moguls competition, coming a distant second to a fantastic performance by American Hannah Kearney (playing the role of villain for Canadian viewers, heroic spoiler for Americans), but rather that they built all of their coverage around medal hopefuls who would be challenging for gold on Day 2. And after both Heil and Charles Hamelin (who failed to even qualify for his short track speed skating final in the 1500m) failed to bring that narrative to its conclusion, it continues with a whole new set of characters who are supposed to make us forget about the failures of the days before.

And that’s a problem for me.

Jennifer Heil performed well, outperforming her qualifying score that got her into the finals with ease, but she was out-skied: Kearney outdid her qualifying score by a full 0.7 points, with better airs (including one that the commentator considered the best 360 she’s ever seen a woman perform) and superior turns. Heil did not fall, nor did she let down her country or herself: rather, she skied a run that just wasn’t good enough on this day, and everyone was skiing in the same difficult conditions as everyone else. Jennifer Heil did not lose this competition, but rather didn’t quite have enough to win: that’s not something to forget but rather something to celebrate in its own right. She adds an Olympic Silver medal to her collection, and she’ll look to go for Gold again in four years.

But in the narrative placed on her by the network, and they would argue by Canadians as well, was entirely dependent on this race. What happened to Jennifer Heil before those 28 seconds, and what happens after, are irrelevant: when CTV went “In Focus” with Heil earlier in the day in a video package, it was a shallow discussion of how she is able to contain her emotions “in the moment” or “under pressure,” not who she is or where she comes from or what her dreams might be for the future. While we tend to associate the Olympics with tearful backstories designed to help audiences relate to the Olympians, Canada’s coverage is all business: it doesn’t matter what they’ve done in the past, all that matters is whether they will be able to keep composed to win the gold medal that will have Canadians singing along to the national anthem for the first time on home soil.

The race was unquestionably a disappointment, for Heil and the nation, and the image of Heil standing there with her skis looking dejected while the Americans flanked her celebrating wildly (the bronze medallist having leapfrogged over competitors to reach the podium) was certainly tough to swallow. However, what about young Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, who finished fifth in her first Olympics at the age of 18 – that story is about a young rising star, one who may have lucked out with some late crashes but who performed extremely well. Perhaps in four years, she’ll be the one who marks Canada’s best hope in the event, but those sorts of narratives are beyond the scope of what CTV is considering. They put their money on Heil, and her failure means that their focus, as narrow as it is, moves to the next major medal contender.

I’ll give CTV credit: on their Olympics site, their headline reads “Heil earns Canada’s first medal” as opposed to “Heil Settles for Silver” – that they avoided the negative headline despite potential alliteration earns them some props. And, I don’t think anyone can claim that this narrative is actually changing how the athletes are performing: Hamelin didn’t make an error in his 1500m semi-final but rather faced a tough field and didn’t have the legs to make a charge at Ohno down the stretch, and there’s little else that Heil could have done when she’s not considered an aerial specialist to the degree of Kearney. However, while there are times where the coverage of the Olympics feels manipulative, or focused too heavily on the stories of certain athletes, it’s even more frustrating when that narrative seems like it’s ignoring the athletes as well, focused more on the maple leaf on their jacket or unitard than on, well, anything else.

I like a good story as much as anyone else, but I am also capable of showing a bit of patience. While I’m hopeful this doesn’t jinx the team in any way, Canada has a large number of potential medal hopefuls coming up in the two weeks yet ahead of us, so the chances of no one winning gold on home soil are extremely slim. As such, I don’t necessarily understand the urgency: while CTV seems to think that we’ll all breathe easier once someone wins that gold medal, I’d tend to believe that we’d all breathe easier if we weren’t being urged to bite our fingernails and wear out the edge of our seats every single time someone comes close. In the process, we’re losing sight of the big picture: this isn’t abnormal with large-scale national sporting coverage, but with the games in Vancouver it feels like it’s more prevalent than usual.

Cultural Observations

  • In watching tonight’s coverage, I’m reminded how insane short track speed skating is: not only are huge pileups borderline probable, but there are so many possibilities for rule violations that finishes are tenuous until they actually go up on the scoreboard. Most sports built on racing don’t have that kind of tension barring photo finishes, but short track is a sport where finishes hang by a thread: entertaining for us, perhaps, but surely psychological torture for the skaters.
  • Looks like NBC’s brand synergy worked: thanks to his appearance on The Biggest Loser (it was on the DVR, I was bored, don’t judge me), I knew who J.R. Celski was, and could enjoy seeing him finish on the podium with a bronze medal in his first Olympics.
  • One of the things about watching coverage that you might not otherwise is you learn neat bits of trivia: for example, Latvian speed skater Haralds Silovs is the first to ever skate in both the long track and short track speed skating events at a Winter Olympics, and he did both in the same day. I was able to watch his race in the 5000m Long Track, and to hear that bit of trivia was a nice bit of context for seeing him pop up in the short track event later tonight.
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6 Comments

Filed under Olympics

6 responses to “It’s All That Glitters: Contextualizing Canada’s Obsession with Gold

  1. Louis Mastorakos

    Just wanted to thank you for the great commentary on the actual presentation of the games, especially from the Canadian perspective. Please keep these up as I’m finding them insightful (not to mention spot-on in their commentary.)

  2. This gold obsession is driving me nuts too. These poor athletes are getting hounded in every interview. And it’s not like they’re doing bad. Poor Charles didn’t stand a chance in his semi-finals. And then Olivier Jean was suddenly our last hope and he was only there because of a stroke of luck.
    But Jenn Heil made me the saddest. She didn’t even get to enjoy her hard earned Silver because of all the pressure.
    I have no nationalism at all, I’d actually rather see Austria win all the medals, but I want Canada to win that gold soon just to get rid of all this talk about the first gold.

  3. 1. Spot on commentary, except that you shouldn’t be blaming CTV for the “Gold or Bust” coverage but rather the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and CEO Chris Rudge. He was the mastermind behind the “Own the Podium” campaign that has overshadowed the first two days of the games and a silver medal for Heil.

    2. Bored or not, there is no excuse for watching THE BIGGEST LOSER 🙂

    • I think Own the Podium is actually good for Canadian sport because it helped drive funding and support structures pre-Games; AIMING for gold isn’t problematic, and is in fact borderline necessary for the sake of competitive drive. The issue is when the media accepts that narrative and runs with it, forcing it onto the public in a way that goes beyond the competitive spirit inherent in sport.

  4. Evamarie

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Good points!

  5. E

    I am extremely disappointed with CTV’s coverage, right from the opening ceremonies. It just has gotten worse. I was thoroughly disgusted with the Jennifer Heil post-race interview. Instead of celebrating the win of a silver medal for Canada, and despite the fact that Jennifer pointed out it was an achievement for Canada, the unprofessional interviewer’s attitude was the equivalent of “OMG, what happened to you? Why did you blow it?”. The NBC interview was much better and I found that depressing…they celebrated her achievement instead of crapping all over it like CTV did! Today, I heard one of those idiots say on air something like “while Jennifer Heil didn’t bring smiles to Canadians, she sure did for Americans”…What kind of callous, insensitive crap is that???? CTV is trying to be hip and relevant; sadly, they are waaaaay off the mark. NBC is much better in terms of quality and approach…even the way they cover Canadians competing! Better context, better commentary, more professional. Shame of you, CTV!!!! You are an embarrassment to professional broadcasting!

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