The 2018 FIFA World Cup was a stupendous sporting event, the best men’s World Cup in decades. And for as much as I entered last weekend looking forward to Sunday’s final, I looked forward just as much—and maybe more—to the unveiling of the post-tournament highlight montages.
I love highlight montages. By the end of an event like the World Cup or March Madness, I, like many viewers, have spent about a month in front of the TV, living and dying with every bounce of the ball, often for athletes I’d never heard of before the tournament began. Just walking away after watching the medal/trophy ceremony and hearing a few words from the host would feel so abrupt; I need a few minutes to collect myself, relive those most significant moments, and say goodbye to the friends I’ve made along the way. Like something between a grand finale and a set of wedding photos, a montage is both monument and memento.
Luckily, by an event’s end, the broadcast concerns that televise these competitions have collected thousands upon thousands of hours of well-lit, high-definition footage of attractive young people performing astounding feats and experiencing overwhelming emotions. And after putting on this show for about a month, the networks have producers and technical staff to thank, so while the end credits roll they round up a few particularly pretty shots and set them to music. This treat for the viewers and victory lap for the broadcasts has become its own tradition.
It’s difficult to screw up this kind of thing, as the 2018 World Cup made clear: The BBC based its closing montage on a weird ballerina motif, while Fox set its version to Thirty Seconds to Mars. And both were great! I knew that I wanted to see Croatia celebrate their multiple penalty-shootout wins, but I’d forgotten about Toni Kroos’s buzzer-beating, bad-angle screamer against Sweden. A good montage includes the things you knew you wanted to see and the things you didn’t know you wanted to see.
This effect is compounded over time: Three years on, most fans remember Carli Lloyd’s hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final, but you might have forgotten about Celia Sasic’s missed penalty in the semifinal or Maren Mjelde’s inch-perfect free kick goal in the group stage. Good news, the BBC has you covered—and it’s brought Of Monsters and Men.
Almost all sports montages are good, but music elevates the art form and ratchets up the emotional stakes. ESPN’s 2014 World Cup sign-off was a gorgeous, arresting visual spectacle set to Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars,” which—and I say this as someone who thinks the act of hating on Coldplay is itself boring and played out—is an uninspiring piece of music.
This is my problem with the most famous tournament-ending montage in American sports, “One Shining Moment.” Tradition dictates that CBS set its highlights to David Barrett’s purpose-written ballad, and, like other college basketball institutions, such as Rick Pitino and not paying players, it hasn’t aged well. “One Shining Moment” is tradition for tradition’s sake, a cloying, monotonous number that hamstrings the production staff and prevents the montage—iconic as it is—from reaching its true potential.
Hockey Night in Canada, by contrast, proved that you could turn a montage into an institution without allowing the backing music to grow stale. When HNIC was on CBC, Toronto filmmaker Tim Thompson produced the show’s highlight montages, which were consistently among the best in the business. In 2013, for instance, Thompson bookended the Stanley Cup playoffs with a pair of masterpieces. The first was a postseason curtain lifter that invoked the ghosts of hockey history, set to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” a song so great it’ll make you drop everything and thrash around the house for three days straight.
Then, once the Chicago Blackhawks lifted the Cup, Thompson stitched together a highlight reel set to “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. Good thing these montages aired two months apart. If I had watched them back-to-back I not only would’ve broken down in tears, I would’ve gotten so amped that I might have thrown my coffee table through my television.
But networks don’t have to change their music every time out. As great as Thompson’s work was, the gold standard for sports montages is the end-credits compilation NBC produces at the conclusion of every Olympics. That hasn’t changed its music since the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
It’s probably easier to produce a moving montage for the Olympics than for March Madness or the Stanley Cup playoffs, because—as with the World Cup—the Olympics carry the intensity of international competition and feature athletes whom viewers come to know over the course of a few weeks but might not see much of in the four years between competitions. And since NBC invests so heavily in soft-focus human-interest storytelling, I get to the point where the athletes really feel like part of my life during the Olympics; when they go, I miss them the way I would a beloved sitcom character.
Unlike the World Cup, though, an Olympic montage includes both men and women, and showcases a wide variety of sports: the crunching physicality of hockey or boxing, the languid beauty of gymnastics or figure skating, the solitary torment of cycling or cross-country skiing, interspersed with shouts of anger or joy, and tears of sorrow or relief. In order to get the most out of that footage, you need backing music that itself traverses those emotional and dynamic peaks and valleys.
For that task, NBC chose “Titans Spirit,” by South African composer and former Yes multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rabin. With its soaring horns, propulsive snare drums, and doleful strings, “Titans Spirit” runs right up to the border between moving and emotionally manipulative, just like Remember the Titans, the film for which it was composed. The song could not be more perfectly suited for a sports montage, as it starts with an up-and-at-’em segment that’s good for some fast-paced highlights, then goes to a slow, soft string section that begs to be cried to. Then it builds back up to an all-timer of a happy-crying crescendo, as the horns pick the melody back up. And in case you missed the peak of the crescendo the first time, not to worry: “Titans Spirit” delivers the soaring horn section again.
When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup last month, the DJ at T-Mobile Arena put on “Titans Spirit” just as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the cup to Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin. The song reached the crescendo right as Ovechkin, who experienced as much catharsis that night as 10 normal people experience in a lifetime, hoisted the Cup for the first time.
That bit of DJing was as impressive as any hockey feat in the entire playoffs. Now imagine what you can do with that piece of music and some planning.
NBC’s Olympics montage format is always the same, which is fine, because it works: It opens with some scene-setting highlights and early medal-winning performances you might have forgotten, then shows a few crashes, falls, and crying athletes as “Titans Spirit” gets softer. In the winter, there’s an interview with Shaun White; in the summer, Ato Boldon calls Usain Bolt the greatest sprinter ever. Even the individual shots are virtually the same: There’s always a ski crash, a gymnast falling, and a pole vaulter clearing the bar, looking at the camera, and smiling.
Then, as the horns swell up to that crescendo, NBC replays the most thrilling highlight from a given games: Jessie Diggins’s cross-country skiing relay win in Pyeongchang, T.J. Oshie’s shootout winner over Russia in Sochi, Jason Lezak’s comeback to win relay gold in Beijing, and Sarah Hughes’s flawless spinning in Salt Lake City.
I watched all nine of NBC’s “Titans Spirit” montages in succession, and every single one made me want to cheer, cry, and hug the nearest person I could get my hands on. I walked away envying these athletes who lived out the best or worst moments of their lives on international television, not so much for what they felt but for how much they felt. I thought I was going to die during the 2018 women’s gold-medal hockey game. Watching 16 years’ worth of Olympic moments like that in one afternoon put me on the floor, weeping, in the fetal position. I’ve never felt so alive.
Montages distill our most memorable, moving sports moments down to their greatest potency. An expertly crafted montage brings back everything you’ve ever felt about sports, in one four-minute torrent of tears and goose bumps. It’s an experience worth waiting an entire tournament for.