After the (Olympics) gold rush – some thoughts on media and emotionality

If Usain Bolt had improved his 100 metres time from 2008 in step with the upgrades in 2012 Olympics media coverage, he would have run it in [fill in your own very small number here] seconds.

My serious point is that the Olympics media, at least in the UK, have been superb. There has been unprecedented viewer choice of replays/live coverage on the web, and live coverage at all Olympic venues simultaneously. High-definition telephoto images, particularly in slow-motion, have captured fleeting gestures, the slightest movements of muscles and rapid changes in facial expressions in ways that have been beautiful and moving. If you go to an event you get the contagious excitement of being in a huge crowd, but the athletes are tiny dots. The ravishing detail of image capture in 2012 has helped focus on the raw expression of emotion. This is just my personal impression, but I’ve felt more moved and emotionally involved with these games than I can ever remember. Anybody else feel that?

For a British person it’s difficult to work out whether the pleasure of London 2012 has been heightened by the danger of loss of national face, not just in poor sports results but also in potentially bad organization, inept media and embarrassing opening/closing events. It has been an enormous relief that we’ve had excellent results, built stylish venues and organized some suitably feelgood celebrations. In short we’ve demonstrated the kinds of quirky but creative and effective cultures that are near the best of what we British people can do.

But I think there really has been a journalistic decision to focus on the emotion of the games – the technical improvements have simply made it possible.

For background, keen students of the national zeitgeist will have noticed for some years that our famous British ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘British reserve’ is no longer as culturally powerful as it was. Perhaps we Brits started to notice our American friends on imported TV programmes whooping and hollering; we wondered why (at least on television) they seemed to be enjoying themselves while we were keeping schtum. During the 1980s Tony Blair’s contribution to the practice of politics was partly the insight that politicians in the media eye have to ‘emote’, meaning they need (at least for their opinion poll results) to express emotions publicly rather than just feel them privately. The locus classicus of this kind of overt emotionalism in UK culture was the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Diana herself was an evangelist for this kind of emotionality; I am not in any way trying to diminish the sadness of her life story and tragically early death, but her preferred self-image as ‘Queen of Hearts’ might be more accurately termed ‘Queen of Hearts on sleeves’. By contrast I can’t believe the British royal family feel any less intensely than anyone else – they simply choose a different style of displaying emotion in public.

My general point, perhaps the central insight of this blog, is that our changing conception of ourselves is at least partially influenced by the reflections of ourselves we see via the extension (and distortion) of our sense faculties in media. Those reflections are different depending on the nature of the medium, whether HD television images or spoken language or words on a computer via the web.

What has this got to do with sport? It has been noticeable for some time, even in the UK, that sporting figures are also now obliged to emote for viewers and fans. Prowess with racket, ball or running spikes is not enough; their job of work is also to talk about their emotional highs and lows. Even when Andy Murray was clearly distraught at losing to Roger Federer at the British Open Tennis Championships at Wimbledon in June 2012 – with some kind of personal grief too, as when he looks to the sky and says something after he wins? – he had the courage to speak to his interviewer seconds afterwards. This clip comes after the very worst bit but is still painful viewing if you think anyone’s human dignity includes the right to feel what you feel in private. Our sympathies here go out to Murray, perhaps for the first time – the English sections of the UK public have not previously warmed to his defensive personality and abrasively pro-Scottish pronouncements. And his gold medal – along with his conspicuous singing of the national anthem – has gone a long way to repairing some of his previous PR damage.

This ‘emotional’ style of interviewing – grabbing the still-panting sportsperson, shoving a microphone in their face and asking them ‘How does it feel?’ – has been much used at these Olympic games. It has in truth been fascinating viewing, and the perfect adjunct to the HD slowmo images. The abstractions of the tiny figures running round an extended circle shape are replaced by near-full-screen images of faces sometimes at a peak of emotional expressiveness.

It is very much to the credit of the athletes and the spirit of the games that they have answered the interviewers naturally, honestly and decently, usually without media-weary platitudes. They have appreciated the efforts of their competitors. They all want to thank their coaches and families – family reaction shots have been a heart-warming feature throughout, including the meme of South African gold-winning swimmer Chad le Clos’s dad. The British athletes in interviews have usually been expansively appreciative of crowd support.

Chris Hoy’s mum tries to watch but can’t manage it. His dad is on the right. Image from AP / Martial Trezzini

There have been extreme differences in reaction at getting silver/bronzes. The media-crucified Rebecca Adlington wept with disappointment for her bronzes in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle, but Tom Daley (and team) was ecstatic (at 4:15) about his diving bronze. In the same competition a mortified Qiu Bo stood stock-still with his face to the wall after getting silver. Jessica Ennis triumphed over perhaps her most difficult opponent, the frenzy of media-induced public expectation.

My favourite Olympics media moment was when the British rowers Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase felt they had ‘let the nation down’ for getting a silver. In this clip the depth of their grief and the beautifully sympathetic reactions of the interviewer are wonderful. I thought it showed a deep human sympathy between athletes and spectators – finely expressed by the journalist as he struggled to keep the professionalism of his work on track.

Like most things, simply what it feels like will tell you if it was a success. I went to three events – tennis, kayaking and hockey – and noticed a good-tempered buzz to the crowd. Premier League football crowds, by contrast, often feel ugly or threatening; football fans’ humour is often bitter or sarcastic. Security checks at all three Olympic venues were efficient but friendly, with startlingly (compared to airports) short queues. The demand for tickets meant we watched cheaper events and teams/countries we didn’t know much about, but it didn’t seem to matter because it was fun to find (with the rest of the crowd) something to cheer about. On the way out of every venue many of the volunteer ‘games makers’ (out of 70,000 total) seemed genuinely to want to interact with us; one smiled warmly at us and asked us if we had had a good day, and was interested in our reply. And then on the train afterwards I was one of three strangers who easily struck up a sparky conversation about (and being an example of) how the Olympics had brought the country together.

All in all, the unacknowledged but implicit competition between heavy-duty corporate monopoly sponsorship and the popular spirit of the games was decisively won by the people. The volunteer helpers have been wonderfully non-bureaucratic and genuinely intent on helping people have a good time – at the ‘Park Live’ big screen they let people through the exit just so we could see Sir Chris Hoy win a gold medal. At times, though, the sponsors/monopolies seemed crude, such as when Ticketmaster (‘official ticketing services provider to London 2012’) got Twitter to take down one man’s computer-generated tweets that told followers when re-sold tickets were available on the official site. This harmless, non-profit and useful site ‏@2012TicketAlert was swiftly reinstated – a triumph of common sense. By the end of the games it had, apparently, reached 1 million people and helped do a good job recycling unused corporate seat allocations that would otherwise have been empty. But why weren’t the seats being used? Why wasn’t the reselling system better organized? If you see empty seats when watching an event on TV and you’ve been told no seats are available, it is manifestly wrong and unfair. Ultimately a way was found to fix the empty seats issue, though in the future the sustainability of the Olympics brand might require a better system for redistributing unused corporate allocations of seats back to the general public. And the enforcement of monopolies needs to be much less heavy-handed. ‘Proud’ to allow only one kind of credit card?

Lord Coe, former 1500 metres gold medallist and chair of the London 2012 organizing committee, was on a video at Olympic venue ExCeL. He said this: ‘It’s a complex, cluttered world we live in. But the oasis of sanity is often the Olympic Games.’ His ‘how to speak to the media’ training is clearly stopping him from saying what he was really thinking, but if we read between the lines it was indeed a profound relief there were no terrorist attacks; even better, nobody seemed to give them a second thought. And the intensity of emotion on display might not seem like sanity to those rationalists who only see the arbitrary or meaningless in games. Sport, though, is the lie that tells the truth. The irrationality of the premise – does it really matter if someone comes first or last? – gives sportspeople full permission to express safely and unguardedly the whole range of human reactions to triumph and disaster. In our witnessing of athletes’ dedication and intensity we can all see reflections of our own struggles, but in a stronger and purer light.

On my way into Cambridge today the only bit of the sluggish River Cam that isn’t as smooth as a mill pond – the race by Laundress Green – was chock-a-block with 20 or so young people with brightly coloured plastic kayaks and slalom posts just like the ones Baillie and Stott had to paddle through en route to their gold medal. In 21 years in this town I have never seen slalom posts on the Cam before. Perhaps the greatest success of the games is not in physical excellence but in our minds: ‘Inspire a generation’ seems fresh and true.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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