“Field is 50 percent of the name and 43 percent of the events. And for it to be ignored and belittled the way it has been at the network of the Olympics for the United States through 2032, is a disgrace and a disservice.” – Dwight Stones, two-time Olympic high-jumper and former analyst for NBC, in an interview with Slate.com.
Before we leave Rio 2016 behind, let’s take a moment to celebrate the many happy hours we all spent watching some of the most dramatic and compelling field event competitions we’ve ever seen.
What’s that you say? You don’t remember those moments when you were glued to the screen during the dramatic fifth round of the women’s long jump? You didn’t cheer out loud when Michelle Carter unleashed her gold medal throw in the shot put? You didn’t shake your head in wonder when Sam Kendricks dropped his pole halfway down the runway during a practice attempt when the PA system began playing the Star Spangled Banner? You didn’t claw the air in frustration to see Chaunte Lowe come oh-so-close to winning the gold medal in her final high jump, instead ending up out of the medals again?
No, of course you don’t remember these things because unless you were seeking out the event stream on the NBC Olympics app, the coverage of the field portion of Track and Field was limited to a few seconds here and there. And the truth is, there’s no way that approach (no pun intended) will ever convey the drama and excitement of a jumping or throwing competition.
Take the afore-mentioned long-jump competition: to appreciate the force of nature that is Britney Reece, you really need to watch her scrape by through the early rounds, seemingly always on the verge of fouling all of her jumps. Through four rounds in the Olympic final, she had just one legal jump, and stood in sixth place. Then, in the fifth round, she jumped 7.09 to take the lead. With that jump, it seemed as if an electric had jolted every athlete in the competition. Immediately, Malaika Mihambo of Germany jumped a personal best 6.95 to briefly raise herself to the bronze medal position (at this point three were THREE jumpers all with best jumps of 6.95). Next, Serbia’s Ivana Spanovic soared 7.08 — a personal and national record — to move from 4th to 2nd place. And then it was Tianna Bartoletta’s turn. She sprinted down the runway, hit the board perfectly, and landed 7.17 meters into the pit for what would turn out to be the winning jump. But that wasn’t the end of the drama, as Reece stepped it up once again in the final round to jump 7.15, just three centimeters shy of gold.
I was lucky enough to watch most of this. But I missed most of the field events, and only read about them afterwards, or happened to see those interstitial excerpts provided by NBC’s main programming.
In the interview with Slate.com, Stones offers some analysis as to why it’s so hard to cover the field events. Some of the difficulty is intrinsic to the structure of the events, and (I would add) is the same at every level of competition, from high school to Olympic Games:
“It’s safe to cover running events. They’re very segmentable. They fit beautifully into eight, nine, 10-minute periods where you can go to a commercial on either end, you can promote other things, they don’t go away somewhere, it’s predictable. Whether they run fast or slow, they still are going to race each other and they’re going to go ’round and ’round and ’round or in a straight line. It’s packageable. Field events, not so much. You can’t really know how long they’re going to take. You can’t really know how far they’re going to throw or how far they’re going to jump or how high they’re going to jump. On paper, the event may look like it’s going to be spectacular and it can just be a dud. But they’re not willing to roll the dice.”
But Stones also blames NBC specifically for not having a clue. He describes his efforts over the years to improve the coverage for field events — efforts that were undermined by his producers.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think it’s a shame that most TV coverage completely ignores the field events in Track and Field, short-changing the athletes and frustrating the few fans who would rather watch two hours of high jumping than ten seconds of sprinting (and thirty minutes of introductions, replays, and interviews). On the other hand, perhaps the audience for field event coverage is destined to be small, and as long as NBC provides the live stream, who cares if they don’t devote expensive broadcast time to in-depth coverage of what most people would consider niche events? It’s easy for me to rail against the short attention span of the networks, but maybe that matches the short attention span of most viewers.
So unlike Stones, I have no suggestions that would increase the viewer interest and enjoyment of the field events. Instead, I’ll only say that most of us simply missed some of the best and most exciting competition that Athletics has to offer. Now the least we can do is to recognize the athletes themselves, no less driven than the runners whose stories we know from the up close and personal features we watch while the field event competitions are taking place.
Field event athletes, we salute and congratulate you! Perhaps in four years, we’ll check in again to see how you’re doing.