Sunday, August 5, 2012
The Poetics of Failure: On NBC's Coverage of Gymnastics
The network that broadcasts the Olympics mediates the Olympics. That is what media does. NBC has been particularly stingy with the live broadcast of marquee events. By the time the network airs its prime time program, people like myself have already consumed, digested and excreted opinions about not just the day's events, but media coverage of them. This makes evening coverage feel worse than "delayed." NBC's evening broadcast is the night of the living dead of sports coverage.
The gross jingoism and cynical story-manipulation (always a factor for any Olympics broadcast) amplifies the problem of time difference - the agonizing suspense of watching events like gymnastics is completely destroyed by editorial practices that decide for you what performances are important.
The exciting thing about live broadcast is that you have no idea what performances will be important. Each one might be. Each failure hits you like a little knife stab. You wince, but some of that wince is pleasurable.
NBC decided to deny us this experience in the sport that is most defined by it. Watching gymnastics can feel like being tickled. The fan sits through one routine after another, holding her breath in anticipation of some kind of athletic humiliation.
Sports like gymnastics and figure skating are defined by this poetics of virtuosity and failure. The performance of virtuosity that defines these sports is not same that we seek in something like the perfection of a ballet. When you go to see a ballet you are not waiting for someone to fail. But that is exactly what we wait for as we watch someone flip their bodies over a balance beam. We are afraid the athlete is going to fall - and the sport encourages our souls to hover over that likelihood. We know it's coming - but from where? When? Who?
There is an exquisite thrill to watching people defy spectatorship's death-drive - in doing so, they flirt with the part of us that wants someone to release us from the agony of anticipation. The audience's groan at a gymnast's fall can thus sound like the release of a pressure valve. The joy expressed in response to the perfect routine is that of pleasure extended beyond what you thought was possible.
The importance of failure to these events is what makes them sports. If these sports theatricalize perfection, it is by playing its difficulty out before our eyes.
Gymnastics is a theater of failure - this is what makes live broadcasts of gymnastics so popular with people who don't even follow the sport. Its athletes are brutally judged. Scored. One. At. A. Time. Every flaw is on full view.
The network's attempt to override and take control over this aspect of gymnastics left its coverage of the women's team feeling particularly distorted and out of focus. The consistent marginalization of Gabby Douglas's accomplishments; the association of her presence with Jordyn Weiber's absence in the all-around finals - this was enabled by the void created by the network's failure to cover the full competition. (The Crunk Feminist Collective is the go-to source for reading of Gabby Douglas's accomplishments and how they've been handled by the media.)
It's as if NBC had no idea that spectators are drawn to the sport's brutality, to its unforgiving attention to the body and to its most retrograde articulation of femininity. It's as if NBC forgot that the thrill of gymnastics is found in its violent juxtaposition of the denial of gravity and the staging of the evaluation of young women, publicly and individually. NBC had bet on its favorite story - the underdog destined to win (Weiber), but miscast the role. You got the sense that its coverage was shaped well before the event even happened. That it plugged whatever happened into an old script. Thus going into the all-around competition Douglas's presence became the story of Weiber's absence.
So the network was slow in responding to the story that was already in place before the games started. The one in which Douglas was fighting to be the first African American to win an individual gold medal in this sport, ever.
That context renders Gabby Douglas's triumph within the sport's elaborate theater all the more meaningful. She becomes visible within this context as a refusal of failure, in a triumph over the sport's economy of humiliation. It's a brutal form of perfection, and its full measure can only be taken in relation to all the others on that day who tried and failed to get there.