Note: This is part of an ongoing series documenting the Sochi Olympics from a TV perspective. Every morning of the Games, we'll look at a key moment from the previous day that NBC captured, elevated, honored, bungled or otherwise reported in a notable way, as only the most televised event on the planet can be covered.
Olympics TV coverage can follow some time-tested narratives. There's the comeback tale (Kerri Strug or Bode Miller in past Games) the indomitable champion (Shaun White) and the upstart (Tara Lipinski, potentially this Games' slalom whippersnapper Mikaela Shiffrin).
But sometimes a network is faced with a different tale--that of the expectation-laden disappointment.
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On Saturday NBC found itself chronicling just that story with American Hannah Kearney, the defending Olympics gold medalist in women's moguls who was seeking the top prize again at Sochi.
On its face, Kearney is a great, made-for-TV story: A Vermont native, she's currently on leave from Dartmouth --at 27-- to pursue her Olympic repeat dream. She's competing in a sport that faces long odds, without the traditionalist appeal of downhill races or the newfangled flash of slopestyle and snowcross. And Kearney has been at the top of her game--in addition to her gold at Vancouver in 2010, she won gold in moguls at the world championships in 2013. NBC prepared a coveted package that it aired Saturday afternoon, showing her chatting, relaxing and training.
But when the competition rolled around, Kearney's story didn't exactly unfold as the network hoped. The skier made a costly mistake coming off her first jump in her final run, a development conveyed with convincing pathos by the event's color commentator, former moguls gold medalist Jonny Moseley. She finished with only a bronze.
It would have been tricky enough if Kearney was bested by no-names. But eclipsing her was an even better made-for-TV story -- Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, part of a Chekhovian trio of sisters who compete at the sport's elite level. The pair actually finished 1-2, an extreme rarity and a great tale. Only one problem: the Dufour-Lapointes are Canadian, and that doesn't exactly play strongly on American TV.
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So NBC was left to rethink, on the fly, how to cover a story it had hyped considerably. Should it revel in another American medal -- bronzes still count too, after all -- or play up the dashed hopes?
Kearney made the decision for them.
"Bronze medalist doesn't sound so good to me," the athlete said right off the bat in her post-run interview, deviating from the usual post-game script in which disappointment is expressed only briefly while pride at one's accomplishments is dutifully noted.
Tears began to crawl down her face as she proceeded to elaborate on why this result was so hard. She explained that in every other competition in which she fell short there was always a shot at redemption, because an Olympics awaited. But with her making the decision not to compete into her thirties at a fourth Games, she couldn't fall back on that this time. "Now my Olympic career is over," she said, bitterly shaking her head. "The peak of my athletic career is over."
NBC's Olympics tourguide Bob Costas quickly pivoted to follow the story. When the network cut back to him in the studio, he said that Kearney's reaction was "something that appeared closer to devastation than mere disappointment."
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From the outside, all of this -- Kearney would later tweet "Bronze feels a lot like a broken heart" -- was a little hard to understand. Being the third-best in the world at anything is an achievement few of us will ever taste. But NBC also captured a relatable part of the Olympics experience. Kearney said what most of us would be feeling if we worked for years and didn't get what we wanted. "When you ask me at this second, all I want to do is get up there [again] and fight," she said in the interview.
The funny thing in all this is that Kearney had actually previously been a comeback story for NBC. After failing to even make the cut for the final at Torino in 2006, her Vancouver gold was a complete turnaround. Network producers, then, were hoping that at these Games they'd have another equally compelling narrative: that of the indomitable champion.
They didn't. But is that necessarily bad for Olympics TV? The disappointment and how athletes handle it is part of the narrative too. As Costas said, Kearney "not only will leave Sochi with less than what she hoped for, but less than what she expected." Though it doesn't offer the ratings-friendly uplift and inevitable Jimmy Fallon appearance to follow, Kearney's tale did contain another element that all good Olympics broadcasting should: something human.
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