It is fair to say that contemporary sportspeople do not often make scintillating speakers; that’s not their job. But it is sometimes painful to see people with such skill appear so breathtakingly vacuous when asked to reflect on the processes of being an athlete. And this is hardly their fault. How did you think the game went? Can you explain what’s going through your mind right now? What happened out there today? You must be pleased with your performance? These questions are so ubiquitous from sports journalists that they surely evoke equally uninspired responses. This banality is astonishing, though, given that the number-one impulse of sports coverage is to heighten the emotional stakes of contests.
Channel Nine’s coverage of the Summer Olympics epitomises Australian commercial networks sports’ drive towards histrionics – fostering spectacular dramas for us at home – better than coverage of any single event can. With more than 200 countries competing over two weeks every four years, the Olympics plays out historical grievances between countries and competitors, and births new ones to be called upon next time. With such a rich narrative backstory and changing settings, the Games truly are a global sporting drama. Indeed, as a Channel Nine promo put it this year, ‘there is no greater drama!’ With this in mind, it is strange that much of Channel Nine’s 2012 London Olympics pre-game coverage and interviews constructed most athletes as dull but vital parts of a spectacular unfolding story. (See here for an example of an underwhelming 15-minute interview.)
In two key ways the ABC’s coverage of the Paralympics differed, thrashing its competition in tone and breaking ABC ratings records. Firstly, in terms of televised sports’ having a dramatic thrust, the Paralympics has at its disposal an archetypal narrative: Overcoming Challenges to be the Best in the World. This is not meant to sound callous or flippant; sports coverage relies on creating drama (‘comebacks from behind’, ‘grudge matches’, ‘beating the odds’ and so on) to pique viewers’ interest. But where the Paralympics differs is that Overcoming Challenges to be the Best in the World is a structural component of the event, often visibly encapsulated in the bodies of the athletes themselves. The theme came across as less manufactured by the ABC and more palpably real, particularly in the behind the scenes looks at competitors’ stories, because all were presented as not only overcoming challenges posed by their particular disability, but as unique individuals with lives outside the arena.
Adding to the less artificial and more dynamic tone of the Paralympics coverage was ABC2’s vibrant panel of commentators on their Evening Show, entirely devoid of veteran sports broadcasters and breakfast host ring-ins. We had a much-loved Melbourne comedian, Lawrence Mooney, admired writer and broadcaster Sam Pang and actor Adam Zwar from black comedy Wilfred; oh, and there was one sports presenter, Stephanie Brantz, keeping them in line. Despite their relative professional un-sportiness, they appeared thoroughly informed and had obviously been rigorously trained on the ins and outs of the Paralympics procedures, systems and terminologies (see here for a clip parodying this).
It was not, however, their sporting knowledge that was ultimately at stake. What the ABC (rightly) banked on was that the overall strength of the panel would be their capacity to present enticingly humorous lead-up entertainment (see their Kane and Disabled campaign) as well as, once the Games were underway, pre- and post-competition interviews and discussions that were, at least partly, unscripted. Interview highlights included wheelchair (‘murderball’) rugby star Ryley Batt and long jumper Kelly Cartwright, in which the panel were clearly in awe and perhaps a little smitten respectively. An interview from the stadium sidelines with eleven-times Olympic shooter Libby Kosmala’s family saw members so comfortable with Pang they had their arms draped around him, sharing cheeky stories. Pang also provided a highlight running gag, complaining that he had been rammed into early in the Games by a Spanish shooter in a wheelchair, putting him in the medical tent. This ironic humour invited audiences to engage with sports in ways other than po-facedly, presenting athletes not as monotone, dead-eyed cogs in a media machine, but as vivacious individuals.
It is vital to the Olympics as a media commodity that it captures the hearts and minds of viewers: we are more likely to continue to watch if we invest in the story of a sporting event. Though on a larger scale, the aim of televising the Summer Olympics should be the same as for any sports event: capture and capitalise on audiences’ emotions by taking the fewest risks. The Paralympics do not necessarily differ; they need to hold onto audiences as much as anyone. However, in combining the intrinsic human drama – as Channel Nine might say – of the Paralympics with uniquely irreverent coverage, the ABC managed to overcome the common limits of televised sports, delivering engaging pre- and post-events commentary as well as the spectacle of the contests unfolding. In doing so they achieved the impossible: making contemporary sports people interesting both on and off the field.
Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.