Thursday, August 21, 2008

"I Had to Finish the Race"

The men's and women's 4 x 100m relay teams' baton hand-off whiffs today at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing will be hard for the athletes and USA Track & Field to live down.

Lauryn Williams (left) and Torri Edwards (right) dropping the baton in their 4 x 100m relay heat (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko).

Darvis "Doc" Patton and Lauryn Williams – the latter of whom suffered the same fate in Athens four years ago – both made extremely candid, mature, and gracious remarks in their interviews immediately after their respective heats. Their successful struggles to maintain their composure were heartbreaking to watch.

It's very, very, very difficult to carry a coherent conversation immediately after a disappointing performance at the Olympic Games, when what you're actually thinking is "AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!!!!" and you're nearly overcome with a desire to bash your own brains out against a concrete wall. To most viewers, it may be hard to understand just why an athlete looks to be on the verge of tears – after all, there are worse things in life than to be so privileged as even to be at the Games, right?

But imagine having spent, say, 12 years working your ass off on something – something that has required 100% of your focus to the detriment of all else in your life. And it's not just that you have to excel at the day-to-day training – you also have to avoid illness, boredom, mental burnout, injury, distractions, fatigue, self-doubt, poor nutrition, and 1000 other threats, big and small, to your place ahead of the hundreds of other people nipping at your heels to take your place. Now, add the 80,000 live spectators, the 1 billion television viewers, and the butterflies in your stomach that feel more like monkeys on speed. You literally lose a little control of your bladder at the starting line.

Just to get to this point, you've had to treat your effort with a sense of purpose extreme enough enough to require an elevated level of narcissism and self-seriousness. And this perhaps hasn't escaped your notice, causing moments of doubt along the way about what you're doing with your life.

Now, having done everything to a T, you get out there and things just don't go the way they were supposed to. What's your reaction? "AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!!!!"

In the women's race, while the rest of the field went on to finish, Ms Williams turned back to pick up the baton, and she booked it to the finish line. Talk about an "Olympic moment," the kind of thing that will go down in history. Again: you've worked all those years for this, and, come hell or high water, you are going to get across that damn finish line.

When NBC later asked her about this after her heat, Ms Williams said, simply and emphatically, in a way that revealed her passion and determination, "I had to finish the race."


Furioso said...

I too, was more than a bit overwhelmed by Williams, and have in general been pleased with the demeanor of those athletes who've had a camera shoved in their faces after a loss and asked "what went wrong?"

While no one who hasn't been there will ever really get it, well done on trying to articulate what it feels like.

CS said...

Having been both an athlete and a TV commentator, I can empathize with both parties. I have watched these Games quite impressed with the ability of some of the television journalists, while moments later, watched in horror at the poor question choices of the post-finish "field talent." NBC has done a great job of putting ex-athletes in the "color commentator" spots on their broadcasts which at once give the broadcasts credibility, the viewers critical insight, and hopefully the athlete some dignity, when what is happening on screen is beyond the grasp of Joe Televisionviewer.

Where I think they often fall short is the field talent position—meaning the journalist who questions the athletes immediately after the competition while the athlete is still dealing with what just happened to them within the context of the blog post above—is not the right person for the job, undertrained, or both. If you are the field talent, I believe Jane Televisionproducer needs to seriously take this blog content seriously when putting together their broadcast team. I would argue the field talent needs to be MORE adept at what is going on out on the field of play than the color commentator in the booth. Nothing is more uncomfortable and lackluster in a TV production than poorly-asked, immediate-post-event questions. My case in point in NBC's Beijing s broadcasts is swimming. The content of the field talent’s questions rarely deviated from "set-up-the-question-by-describing-what-we-all-just-saw. How does that make you feel?" Wow! Talk about taking the most incredible sporting accomplishment of the century and instantly letting the air out of it. Pffffft. I heard that fart-of-a-questioning sequence almost endlessly during the swimming competitions, leading someone less inclined to eloquent responses, like Mr. Phelps, to reply over and over again, "I'm at a loss for words," while those more inclined to insight and well-articulated answers like, Ms. Coughlin, to look on in disbelief at the banality of the line of questioning and reply downright snidely. Unfortunately for both the journalist and the athletes in both cases, we the viewers feel incredibly uncomfortable because we all feel like total schmucks in the aftermath of the amazing athletic feat followed by a fumbled reaction, ultimately set up by a befuddled journalist. Bummer.

It is hard to ask good field questions in that position, so my empathy for the bad line of questioning starts there, but it is infinitely easier than what the athletes have to do, so the empathy stops right there. Any ex-athlete who has competed even remotely at the level of these Olympians understands that. Besides, these people are working for the most powerful TV entity in the world, and they are expected to be great at what they are doing. These positions can bring about dramatic insight to what we as fans see and experience. Poor lines of questioning by field reporters ruin the experience for everyone, and most tragically, for the athlete. It makes the athlete look stupid, when in fact they are just emotional. We ALL look stupid when we’re overly emotional, and I doubt anything televised is more emotional an Olympic athlete just stepping off the field of play at the Olympics. Under-delivered field journalism makes the whole broadcast seem worthless in trying to impart the incredible emotion wrapped up in the whole thing. This is not even akin to the Superbowl, which happens every year. There is NOTHING like the reaction to an Olympic performance, good or bad.
My advice to NBC: more ex-athletes—preferably Olympic athletes—doing the field questions. Dwight Stones is awesome, and not just in Track and Field. Let him train them. Secondly, teach them timing and don’t make them so aggressive to get the comments immediately. I think these field reporters are scared to death about missing the interview, so they come in WAY too hot after the event. An ex-athlete will know when it’s time to push the questioning. There is an inherent respect we have of the emotional space we need immediately after our performances. We have the radar to know when a question is ready to be answered well. And if the athlete storms off and you don’t get the question, the answer probably wasn’t going to be all that great anyway.
Finally, I don’t like the invasive nature that journalism in general—and especially sports journalism—is taking. I think it’s tacky and overly aggressive. How is Lauren Williams supposed to compose herself 30 seconds after “just finishing,” let alone a day, a week, or even a year. Come on! It seems like broadcasts are orchestrated more and more to find the cracks in the human fabric of the athletes. O.K. That question could fill blogs til the end of time, so I’ll just pose the question and sign off.