Memo to NBC gymnastics commentators: Shut up!

Their overheated, U.S.-obsessed reaction to Monday night's uneven-bars final made America look like a banana republic.

Topics: NBC, Olympics,

Memo to NBC gymnastics commentators: Shut up!

Reuters / Hans Deryk

He Kexin of China (left) and Nastia Liukin of the U.S. compete in the women’s uneven bars final during the artistic gymnastics competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 18, 2008.

Can someone tell NBC to tone down its burning need to celebrate all things bright and U.S.-iful? I’ve put up with its homerism until now, but I’ve had it. The way it waves the flag makes me feel like I’m a citizen of a banana republic, in which everything about the Motherland is Great and Glorious except the plumbing. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s immortal line in “The Maltese Falcon,” “The cheaper the country, the gaudier the patriotic patter.”

The straw that broke the hump of my patriotic dromedary was NBC’s coverage of Monday night’s gymnastics showdown between Nastia Liukin and He Kexin on the uneven bars. I’m not an expert in gymnastics, but I’ve watched enough to know when two routines are extremely close. And that was emphatically the case with He and Liukin. He, who stands 4 feet 8 inches and weighs about as much as an extra-large sack of potatoes, was faster, quicker and tighter in her execution than Liukin. Liukin, 5-foot-3 with long legs, was more flowing and had longer, prettier lines. He had amazing releases; Liukin performed gorgeous pirouettes. It was like the difference between playing a note staccato and playing it legato — strictly a matter of taste. Liukin stuck her landing but didn’t have the greatest form on the way down. He took a side step on her dismount. Both made a couple of other minor mistakes. In a word, close.

The first time I watched the two routines, I thought He was better. The second time, I thought Liukin might be better. The third time, I threw up my hands. The point is, it certainly wasn’t obvious. This isn’t just my dumb opinion, either — our resident gymnastics expert, Jennifer Sey, agreed. It was a squeaker, and it’s a subjectively judged event. Which means, if you’re a commentator, accept the decision graciously and shut up.



To listen to the overheated, reflexively pro-American NBC team, though, you’d think we were watching that scene in “Casablanca” when a croupier hands Captain Renault a wad of cash with the words “Your winnings, sir.” No sooner had Liukin received her score — the same 16.725 that He was awarded — than NBC’s expert commentator Tim Daggett said, “I think they dropped the ball on this one.” Working himself up, he later called the decision “crazy.” NBC’s other expert commentator, Elfi Schlegel, jumped on the “we wuz robbed” bandwagon, saying, “Absolutely, Tim. That routine was spectacular. One slight flaw but minuscule compared to what He did.”

And the agonizing and wringing of hands got worse after He was awarded the gold because of an arcane — and absurd — tie-breaking rule. As the camera zoomed in on Liukin, long after she had figured out the tiebreaker had been applied, bombastic play-by-play man Al Trautwig emoted, thumb-on-scales empathy oozing from every phoneme, “Nastia just wants to know what the heck is going on.”

After the final competitor performed, He immediately knew she had won. There was no controversy — the tiebreaker had already been applied. So, as winners usually do at this time, she got up, beaming, and waved to the crowd. But NBC reacted as if there were still some possible other outcome that might reverse this cosmic travesty. “She already believes she’s going to win,” Trautwig said. “Yeah, they think it’s over,” someone else chimed in. Uh, perhaps they thought that because it was over.

But for NBC, it wasn’t over. First, it brought in a reporter to deliver a gratuitous report on why the U.S. was not protesting the result. (Answer: It had no grounds!) Then it got so deep into its outrage-and-confusion theme that it missed the beginning of the medal ceremony. As the medal music began to play, instead of showing the three athletes on the podium, NBC showed Liukin’s coach and father, Valeri Liukin, and team coach Martha Karolyi staring at a paper explaining the tiebreaker. NBC barely caught the introduction of Chinese bronze medalist Yang Yilin. It bordered on the disrespectful. And as the camera focused on Liukin during the medal ceremony, Trautwig launched into yet another profound psychological soliloquy, intoning that “at times like this you just have to remind yourself, I’ve won four Olympics gold medals here and I won the most cherished gold medal there is in this sport.” Then he added portentously, “But boy, would things be different here if that hadn’t happened.”

The nadir of this overwrought episode came when Trautwig said, “Does He Kexin really think she won the gold?” At least Daggett had the good sense to say that she did. But the impression left was that Fort Knox had just been burgled by Goldfinger and James Bond was too busy with Pussy Galore to do anything about it.

Gymnastics judging controversies are as common as group hugs on every point in volleyball. There are enough real travesties in this sport that the commentators don’t need to go out of their way to create them. I accept that the NBC experts sincerely believed Liukin was better. (Trautwig doesn’t pretend to know what he’s talking about, so his comments fall into a different category, the kind you use to inflate dirigibles.) I also accept that they’re paid to express their opinions. But in a sport that’s judged like this one, when there’s a close outcome, sometimes you just have to accept it. Daggett claimed that the fact that Liukin was American didn’t affect his views, and maybe that’s true. But the U.S.-centric tilt of the whole telecast was unmistakable — and the problem goes beyond gymnastics. If NBC could take the red, white and blue filter off everything, we could see the Olympics a lot more clearly.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>