Sports | When the commentators fall silent

How we are forced into a normative consumption of sports

There is no real break for the omnivorous sports fan. I felt thus obliged to watch a fair amount of the Olympics, putting aside my seemingly de rigueur views on corporatism and nationalism so I could bear witness to the spectacle of short-track speed skating or bobsleigh. Somewhere between a Super-G qualifier and a curling final, I also watched Hal Ashby’s film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There. The film, which stars Peter Sellers in the role of a protagonist allusively named Chance, follows a twentieth century Kasper Hauser who engages with society strictly through what he saw on television during his years of isolation. He becomes a national sensation whose enigmatic tangents of television talk are taken as profoundly philosophical insights and inspirational guidance. Thinking on the philosophy of the film while watching later Olympic events, I kept track of how I was responding to the “presentation” of the events, rather than the events themselves. There is undoubtedly a degree of separation from the “real” athletic performance and the television programming presented by commentators bombarding our consciousness with “context” and constructed narratives. The Olympics as we know them would mean very little to any of us if we did not buy into these narratives. There would be no morbid fascination (or at least no more than usual) surrounding the sliding track if we are not told of the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in the lead-up to the Games. Do we lose the poignancy of Canadian figure skater Joanie Rochette taking all of her allotted minute to take her starting position if we are unaware of her mother’s untimely passing? Beneath these more salient contexts – presumably unavoidable if you live within driving distance of a television, radio, local newspaper, or WiFi zone – there is the fact that the presentation of most events is a combination of superficial pedagogy and preachy predictions. Commentators tell us what to expect before it happens, and when things happen we process them according to their explanations. We disregard the fact that, without their narration, most of us could never comprehend the subtleties in strategy or contingencies that separate world-class athletes from one another. But the online streams of this year’s Games offered a pleasantly surprising alternative. Besides offering English and French “coverage” of events on the CTV-owned networks, the CTV website also offered live streams that took the same camera feeds but played them without any commentary. The feeling of watching the feeds is hard to describe. For the first time, I was left alone with my thoughts in the middle of what is normally such a narrated event. It is not comparable to watching a televised event with the sound muted. The crowds still roared and the commanding yelps of defensemen on the breakout or women’s curling captains doing their best impressions of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally were not only still there, but felt more real – as if the athletes could speak for themselves. Suffice to say, after my first experience, I preferred it immensely to the customary cacophony of commentary. I became the opposite of Being There’s Chance, freed of the imposed expectations or even explanations of what I was seeing. Rather than relate to the athletes through artificially normative outcomes or highlight-driven lessons on the sport from some “expert” who cannot pronounce non-Anglo names, I found myself coming to my own conclusions. I picked my own favourites for my own reasons regardless of the fact that in many events I had no idea what was really going on. For example, a Russian bobsleigh team had a candid camera moment when their Canadian rivals crashed. The Russians knew that their tenuous claim to the bronze depended on missteps by their rivals, and one member of the team was caught smiling and clapping when the Canadians flipped their sled before wincing with a sympathetic grimace. Over the un-narrated stream there was no sanctimonious moralizing about bad sportsmanship – the only sound to the clip was a crowd member laughing at the footage as it played over the big screen. The raw emotions of competition were finally laid bare, without anyone telling me what to think of it. This made a lot more sense to me, as I could see how a team could win based on mistakes by others much easier than I could distinguish differences between near identical runs down the course. It was a new way to interact with the realities of competition, and I cannot overstate how refreshing it was. Unfortunately, I do not think the trend will last. We will be forced back to our narrated feeds after the Games, but I can’t help but imagine this type of presentation for other sports. Putting aside my aversion to televised golf, I think the inevitable comeback of Tiger Woods provides a good example. Upon his return, I can already hear the circumscribed commentators, having been informed which stories will be told and which won’t after the very public disclosure of his recent indiscretions. How refreshing would it be to see him simply play golf the way he does? But deep down, we all expect the inevitable and insufferable narration of his comeback directed by the sponsors that need him to be more than a golfer and less than a human being. I hope that this opportunity that was afforded by the Internet, that gloriously semi-anarchic and messy series of tubes, represented a preview of a future alternative to current sports media. That is not to say that I’ll stop bringing my portable AM radio to ballgames, or refuse myself the pleasures of Ron and Don on Hockey Night in Canada. I’d just never felt so much like I was “being there” myself just a little more, closer than ever to understanding myself as a viewer and the appeal of the sports we love.