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NBC’s Marathon Trials Telecast Fails to Inspire
By Dave Kayser
As the number of U.S.
marathoners qualifying to participate in the Olympic Marathon Trials
grew and grew over the past year, various running-related news sites
began picking up on the story, especially highlighting the resurgence of
elite women marathoners and the successes of women pushing to qualify
for the event. Stories were told of women encouraging each other via
social media and helping each other in the closing miles of races to
record a qualifying time and achieve their dream. As the day of the
trials drew near, anticipation grew on how NBC would handle the issue
and how they might help celebrate the achievements of the over 600
qualifiers. Unfortunately, they basically ignored the issue and instead
delivered a poorly covered race, little, if any, pertinent reporting on
the whys and hows of the many athletes qualifying for the event and
producing a surprisingly inept telecast for a network that has covered
so many other major sporting events so well.
viewers who well understood the nuances of marathoning were first
informed of the “most challenging course I’ve ever seen” according to
on-air announcers sans any elevations to actually illustrate that
difficulty, followed by a cursory overview of the Vaporfly shoe issue
and the extensive aid station set-up. After that was a three-hour show I
likened to a music video on meth that catered to the supposed short
attention of their audience - a quick shot of the men’s and women’s
races, a bit of chit-chat among the three male announcers, a quick cut
to one of the lead vehicles that led to either garbled communications or
a very rushed report, three minutes of commercials and repeat ad nauseum.
For fans of marathoning it was distasteful, and many a casual viewer
must have thought that both the sport and the actual event were simply
Could the importance of
the occasion to the larger world of U.S. running been better covered?
The New York Times, which admittedly has ample resources and
unequaled reporting chops but who put together a rather thin daily
Sports section, nevertheless easily outdistanced NBC in covering the
event. They contacted nearly two-thirds of the qualifiers to get a
handle on why the field grew to a near unimaginable size. Their
reporters gathered many stories on how the runners, especially on the
women’s side, were able to rise above the demands of their jobs, child
rearing and other difficulties of everyday living, dispel doubts on
their ability to reach the qualifying standard and feel the satisfaction
of their success. Their resulting story was able to illuminate readers
on what brought on the rise of qualifiers, the changes in the sport that
assisted them and how the effort enriched their lives. Well-researched
charts and graphs helped illustrate the many points put forth in print.
NBC could have done something similar, but didn’t.
The dramatic change in
U.S elite marathoning was given but a cursory mention by NBC. Rather,
time was given to Ato Bolden assessing the chances of the U.S. sprinters
and field event specialists at the (at the time) upcoming Summer Games.
Even more frustrating was the onslaught of commercials that destroyed
any semblance of the rhythms that any marathon exhibits. The breaks came
at five to ten minute intervals and lasted a minimum of three minutes,
and with the many ads publicizing NBC’s upcoming coverage of the Summer
Games one got the sense that NBC saw the Trials as a giant marketing
opportunity. The network certainly has to pay its bills, but was it
necessary to dedicate nearly half of the time to commercials and obviate
the event that was allegedly being covered?
One would think that the
444 high-achieving women running the race would have impelled the
announcers to do a similar job, but it seemed a sad example of the good
ol’ boy club sliding through with the least amount of effort possible.
To add further insult, Deena Kastor, the only female NBC announcer
allowed into the proceedings, was given precious little air time. When
she was allowed to talk, her brief statements showed extensive
preparation and understanding of the significance of the event for
women’s running, but her segments were either marred by technical
difficulties or a simple lack of air time being given to her. In one
segment, she gave more information on Aliphine Tuliamuk, who had been
leading the race for quite some time, than had been offered by the main
announcers. Certainly nothing was conveyed that might have inspired the
next generation of runners.
Much of the so-called
race coverage catered to the aforementioned short attention span of the
average viewer, with a typical segment consisting of a shot of the
leader of the men’s race, then the women’s, followed by an aerial view
of the relit Olympic torch, a quick look at Bernard Lagat, and then the
women’s lead pack. The result was viewers getting little sense of how
the two races were unfolding, movement and changes within the pack, how
the wind was affecting the runners, who was getting left behind, and the
other tidbits of information that can enliven coverage. Also
contributing to the complete lack of race flow was the unfortunate but
unavoidable 12-minute break for a presidential news conference starting
at 1:52 p.m.
Most disturbing was the
complete lack of coverage of the break-up of the women’s lead pack. Only
reading print reports after the race was I able to discern what actually
happened. It is an unfortunate circumstance in many marathon telecasts,
but oftentimes amends are made by showing replays minutes after a
dramatic break to give the viewer an understanding of what had just
occurred. Here, it was simply explained with “Tuliamuk has moved into
the lead” well past the time it actually occurred.
The use of split screen
technology to simultaneously show the men’s and women’s races was
sporadic, and at times it appeared the producer was using the device for
the first time, switching back and forth at short intervals, which
became more a distraction than a benefit.
The uninterrupted time
spent on post-race interviews was well spent, as the cameras captured
the true joy of each team member’s accomplishments. Lewis Johnson’s
easily digested questions to the team members were perfect, as they
allowed the grinning and ecstatic runners to convey their glee to the
audience. And Molly Seidel’s “I can’t believe this is happening”
statement was a perfect ending to an otherwise lackluster viewing
With vast stretches of
the course showing few if any spectators, it is plainly obvious that
marathoning is not a mainstream spectator sport in the U.S., which is of
no surprise to Road Race Management readers. So why attempt to
create a telecast that is of little or no interest to the general public
and discourages true fans from tuning in? Why not focus on the event
itself instead of endlessly promoting another network venture and
populate the telecast with experts like the incisive and informative
Toni Reavis to add real heft to the production? If resources were used
to adequately research the competitors beforehand, scour the course for
dramatic camera shots and attempt to make the program a first-hand
glimpse at the incredibly hard work that goes into running a marathon,
perhaps that would be a program worth watching.
Dave Kayser worked for the National Park Service for over 30 years before turning his full attention to writing for Road Race Management Newsletter and collecting old running shoes. He started his running career in 1966 and currently trains exclusively on his three bikes.