Going Negative and Going Gold
February 14th, 2010
Earlier today, I was watching CTV’s Olympics coverage when they aired a video package surrounding Dale Begg-Smith, the defending Olympic champion in the Men’s Moguls competition. Begg-Smith, who skis for Austrailia, is of particular interest to CTV because he used to be Canadian, and used to compete for Canada as a teenager. However, like Darth Vader turning to the dark side, at a certain point he left Canada for Australia for reasons which are subject to a great deal of speculation. To give CTV some credit, they didn’t go too far into the circumstances involved, but if we trust Wikipedia (which we don’t, considering the “citation needed, “but for the sake of argument) this was the situation:
Begg-Smith was skiing for his native Canada as a teenager when his coaches told him he was spending too much time on his fledgling business, and not enough time in training. He subsequently quit the Canadian ski program because it clashed with his business interests and, along with his brother, moved to Australia at age 15. The brothers chose to ski for Australia because the country had a smaller ski program that offered them more attention and flexibility. This ensured that they could still successfully manage their business.
There’s a lot of other rumours surrounding just what his internet business (which has made him a millionaire) entails, and CTV isn’t interested in any of it (especially since it’s all conjecture). What the piece focused on was how Dale Begg-Smith has become a villain, how his lack of emotion on the podium in both victory and defeat makes him seem unapproachable, and how this could be seen as strange for someone who is the face of his sport. While they tried to seem disappointed that he refused an interview request, it only made the story that much more damaging, and anyone who watched the clip would be tuning in that night not only to see four Canadians take part in the Moguls competition, but also to see if anyone could unseat the cold-blooded turncoat who dared to spurn this country.
And, much to the delight of viewers across the country and CTV, Canada found its Luke Skywalker.
The Olympics are ultimately a cumulative experience, so the nation watching Alexandre Bilodeau win gold in the Men’s Moguls were probably watching the night before, when Jennifer Heil came up short with a Silver medal performance. So viewers were probably suffering from the best kind of Deja Vu (that which heightens one’s experience) when Bilodeau, like Heil, went second to last and put up the leading performance, leaving us to wait and see if the top qualifier could turn in the run of their lives to beat him. Hannah Kearney may have taken out Heil, but there was no defeating Bilodeau on this day: any suspense was gone when the skier missed a key grab on his second air, as the commentators confirmed that it was over: Canada had finally won gold on home soil.
But, I was pleased that this story managed to be successful beyond that moment, delivering about every Olympics cliche you could possibly imagine in the best possible way. And, based on CTV’s coverage earlier in the day, the hero vs. villain narrative was the most prominent at first, as Dale Begg-Smith’s leading time was taken down by Bilodeau’s performance. The crowd was worked into a frenzy to begin with, considering that two Canadians were sitting atop the leaderboard for quite some time, but they exploded when Bilodeau went to the top of the leaderboard. While Heil was racing against pressure, Bilodeau was racing against a cold-hearted champion who coverage deemed a turncoat, so taking over the lead felt like a victory in and of itself: even if he had lost, defeating Begg-Smith would have been enough in some way, keeping his story from devolving (as Heil’s did) from what he achieved to what he didn’t achieve.
I was impressed that CTV let Bilodeau’s victory play out largely with the commentators on site rather than going back to Brian Williams in the studio: it kept the moment intact, maintaining the emotion surrounding his victory (including shots of his older brother, who suffers from celebral palsy, elated in the stands with the rest of Bilodeau’s family). Sure, the days ahead will ensure that Bilodeau becomes a national figure, and is paraded into their studios as often as possible (plus he’s pretty well guaranteed to be carrying the flag in the Closing Ceremonies), but in that moment it was about his performance, and his family, and his personal achievement. While there’s a lot of talk about how this medal, being Canada’s first, in some way belongs to the entire nation, at the end of the day he earned it, and I felt CTV’s coverage was ultimately reflective of that (rather than the commentator stressing too severely the “history” being made here).
This takes the “pressure” off Canada’s athletes and CTV, so I’m hoping this lets them ease up a bit on everyone involved. Earlier in the day, Kristina Groves won a gutsy Bronze medal in the Women’s 3000m Long Track Speed Skating event, and yet because that quest for gold was looming over her this seemed like a disappointment, even when this is not considered her strongest event (which is the 1500m, still to come). Similarly, Cindy Klassen is recovering from double knee surgery and some tough personal struggles, so these games are for her just a chance to keep returning to her record-setting form from Torino; however, because of the focus on medals early on, the commentators play up the fact that “anything can happen.” This will never entirely disappear, as CTV wants to make every event seem like a medal contender for Canada to get people to tune in, but I’m hoping that the coverage gets a bit more laidback now that the pressure is no longer turned up to 11.
- There was an intriguing bit of coverage earlier today, when CTV showed taped footage of Chinese Figure Skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo performing their routine in the Pairs event. The pair were skating first, which normally means they’re one of the weaker teams: however, Shen/Zhao are making a comeback after retiring near the top of the sport, and despite skating first (to a lukewarm crowd reaction from a half-empty stadium) they set a new World Record for a Pairs Short Program. And yet, because they were skating as the lowest seed (thanks to a lack of qualifying events leading into the event to give them a world ranking), the crowd didn’t know what they were watching, and didn’t react to any of it with any sort of excitement. Some of this probably has to do with the lack of recognizable marks (no more 5.9s or 6.0s to watch for or react to), but it’s still interesting how the leading pair could get so little reaction because no one expected a team starting that early to perform so well.
- I also quite enjoyed the Biathalon earlier today, where I could flip through the DVR and experience about fifteen different weather conditions: it seems insane that a sport could be so uneven, in that there is over 40 minutes between the first and last competitors starting the course which means that they will often perform the most difficult task (shooting) in entirely different conditions, but it makes for a really spontaneous event, and there were some surprise finishers that always helps make an event most viewers don’t easily get into a little bit more exciting.
- Nice to see Brian Williams handle his first CBC slipup with his usual humility: it was, as he says, inevitable.