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Are Tape Delays, Commercials, and Commentators Ruining the Olympics?

Or does it not matter? Our staff can’t agree

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Olympics are here, and if you aren’t able to livestream the events at your job, you’re probably watching at home, after work, during prime time. Which means you are probably watching tape-delayed broadcasts — especially if you live on the West Coast. But we live with the internet. These are the Push Notification Olympics, with news organizations and Twitter threatening to spoil the results at any time. And though NBC has called this the “most live Olympics ever,” not everything is available as it happens. So does the Olympics have a broadcast problem? Our staffers share their thoughts.

Alyssa Bereznak: I live in Brooklyn, which is why I hadn’t bothered to understand what kind of delay I would encounter while visiting family in the Bay Area this week. It wasn’t until I was on the couch with my mom Sunday night watching China do insanely elegant things for the women’s synchronized diving off the 3-meter springboard that I realized the system was deeply, deeply fucked. Suddenly, I received two push notifications from the Associated Press and The New York Times informing me that Katie Ledecky had just broken her own world record and won gold in the 400-meter freestyle. “Well, then,” I thought. “Guess I won’t find any joy in watching that one.” I logged onto Twitter (because I’m a masochist), to find East Coasters relishing in the thrill of watching history be made, live, before their eyes. Yes, the International Olympics Committee may have thought it could squash social media spoilers by forbidding everyone from making GIFs of the games, but let’s face it: that’s like Donald Trump saying we can beat ISIS by shutting down its internet access.

I can’t really blame the push notifications because news orgs gotta news, but I can outwardly hate them. Aside from the yo-ing friends on the legendarily useless app Yo, telling me an Olympian won gold is the worst possible use of a push notification. It reduces an athletic feat that can only be enjoyed in real time to a sentence, siphoning any bit of excitement you’d feel from watching it yourself.

Are you happy, NBC? You have sentenced me to a hopeless game of whack-a-mole with my Olympic news sources for the next two weeks.

Caitlin Blosser: The Olympics are supposed to be a glorious time when the world’s most gifted physical specimens compete in various events as the world watches in awe. Unfortunately, Rio 2016 has been a nightmare of a viewership experience. From ridiculous tape delays to awkward commentators, the Rio broadcast has been a lesson in how absolutely not to air the biggest sporting event in the world. I just don’t want to hear Michele Tafoya continue to ask U.S. swimmers what they plan to do in the water. They’re racing. They’re planning to swim fast and be the first person to touch the wall so they can stand on the podium with a gold medal around their neck while the national anthem plays.

I don’t remember any viewing experience for any sporting event being as bad as it is for Rio 2016, but go Team USA!

Juliet Litman: There are few events that galvanize a critical number of people worldwide, and even fewer in sports that do that. The Olympics are rousing because everyone in the world should, theoretically, be able to participate in some way. Modern technology means that the world is capable of simultaneously enjoying the revelry. The tape delays and wacky scheduling have stripped me of my imagined community, and I am not impressed.

Michael Baumann: That’s what you get for living in California. Compared to my Los Angeles–based colleagues, I live in The Future. That the Eastern and Central time zones get to see the Olympics live, for the most part, confirms the idea that America should have, after completing the Louisiana Purchase, quit while it was ahead.

That said, I certainly feel for people who suffer through NBC’s tape delays — particularly people who work 9-to-5 jobs that don’t allow you to watch sports all day — and I certainly don’t think there’s any way to show sports on tape delay in this day and age while maintaining any sense of drama. But most events are streamed live, and with better commentary (apologies to Tim Daggett). The internet is the solution to its own problem.

Jack McCluskey: The Olympics are still great — and will forever be great — because competition between elite athletes at the peak of their abilities will always be spellbinding. Plus, patriotism!

I live on the East Coast, so maybe the ill-conceived NBC delays don’t affect me as much. Also, I generally stay off social media when I’m not at a computer, so maybe avoiding spoilers isn’t a problem for me.

Hell, I just rewatched Jason Lezak’s incredible closing strokes for Team USA in the 4x100-meter relay from Beijing and got caught up in the drama of it all … and I’ve known what happens in that race for eight years! Whatever the reason, nothing about Rio has been ruined for me. (So far, at least. Don’t @ me, West Coasters and social media addicts.)

Isabella Kulkarni: After the star-studded DNC, I felt ready for a true Olympic-caliber performance during Friday night’s opening ceremony. But I found myself thinking, “I didn’t realize the Olympics had a fashion show.” Plus, the show didn’t even debut any athletic garb. I would have been keen to seeing a neon swim outfit or two of the Sun Yang variety, but instead I got Gisele Bündchen. It was confusing — as the familiar melody of a problematic classic played, Gisele performed a physical reenactment like it was a game of charades! She isn’t even from Ipanema, she’s from Três de Maio. Sure, let’s just forget that 26 million or so viewers tuned into watch the ultimate showcase of athleticism — not fashion. Instead we got to watch a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, former Victoria’s Secret model walk a really (really, really) long stretch of floor. Brazil, a country of incredible ethnic, lingual, and cultural diversity, has more to showcase than a beacon of consumerism who can walk without tripping. She doesn’t even live in Brazil.

Riley McAtee: I only have NBC proper, so I pretty much only watch the Olympics in prime time, and the broadcast of the synchronized diving was just weird to me. I mean, it was was tight, because synchronized diving is tight, but it felt like NBC was rushing through it to get to the swimming events. They cut a bunch of the dives, and then sped through the ones they did show. My mind couldn’t even process how many flips these guys were doing before — oh hey, they’re diving again. I swear, even the slow-motion replays weren’t very slow — they didn’t have enough time to give audiences a good look.

This is more an Olympics problem than an NBC problem — there are only so many hours of prime time, and there are a lot of sports to get through. But my head’s still spinning.

Katie Baker: I don’t inherently have a problem with the nightly NBC highlights show — it reminds me of my childhood and the producers are good at what they do. (It was also a godsend last night on a six-hour cross-country flight.) That said, I hate that it’s played on tape delay on the West Coast, taking away the few live elements such as swimming and volleyball, and I wish they would do more to feature athletes who aren’t representing the U.S. In general, my favorite thing has been the “Gold Zone” channel, which isn’t afraid to bring you an enchanting blend of horse jumping split-screened with the slalom kayak.

But then, as I was typing this, the gymnastics livestream crew TWICE told us a gymnast’s score on an event before showing the event. This drives me nuts!!!!! I’m not a stickler about spoilers, but these are spoilers with zero purpose. I take back everything nice I said.