Have you ever watched the Olympics on television outside your home country?
The Olympics captivates every country on earth, especially the host nation where it is unexpectedly poignant, yet our experience of this global event is heavily filtered. Imagine a wall of TV screens relaying different live action simultaneously. Each screen is a filter- an interactive lens on the sporting world. Which event will you choose and why?
We all perceive and interpret the world through lenses. The most common are: culture, gender, age, personality, race and ethnicity, religion, class, education, and physicality. When watching the Olympics at home, you follow your nation’s athletes, never missing a minute of the action, interviews or medal ceremonies of local heroes. Domestic television coverage is largely based on national-cultural lenses, which filter who or what is most important. This is entirely understandable and what constitutes compulsive viewing feels instinctive and self-evident. But overseas, should you find yourself abroad during the Olympics as I did this year as a nomadic Brit, priorities are outrageously different! Entire events involving your sporting legends are not even broadcast. Instead, you find yourself watching endless coverage of (what to you are) painfully obscure events, because the country you are visiting has a chance of success. The national filter is set differently. The Olympic lens is focused elsewhere. Reality is unreal. To a sports fan this is excruciating. Where’s the real action – the sailing and cycling! – for crying out loud?
National lenses do not always dominate in the Olympics. Filters are contextual, shifting position in our unconscious hierarchies based on circumstance. Occasionally, meta-events or global icons rise above and temporarily suspend national interests as we rejoice in the sheer genius of the individual and moment: Usain Bolt in the 100 metres; Michael Phelps in the swimming pool. Humanity celebrates each other and itself with a collective gasp of disbelief and joy. Compelling stories can also trump national lenses: Gabby Douglas, the first African-American and first woman of colour in Olympic history to become individual all-round champion gymnast (race lens); the Saudi Arabian women (along with female athletes from Qatar and Brunei) selected to compete in the Olympics for the first time (gender lens) – only to return home to a conservative backlash; Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee, running on carbon fiber ‘blade’ prosthetics (physicality lens). These subsidiary stories momentarily capture global attention before we return to the drama of a sporting spectacle filtered through cultural lenses.
During the Olympics, television networks select lenses for us based predominantly on national interests. In the past, this arrangement has worked well and a degree of choice is now available on television with the advent of multiple sporting channels. But London 2012 is the first Olympics in a digital age of live video streaming. Consumers now expect online interactive access and unlimited choice. We have become accustomed to customizing our viewing experience, even if this means deciding to follow the same national filters as television. The choice is ours. When television does not permit adequate customization or, even worse, tries to manipulate the viewing experience, the effect is jarring. In the United States, where I watched most of London 2012, NBC, the official Olympics channel, got off to an inauspicious start, editing out a tribute to London’s 7/7 victims in the Opening Ceremony. Later, NBC chose not to show the 100 metres final live (the delayed broadcast was intended to capture primetime viewing figures that evening). The result was uproar. During the gymnastics, NBC opted not to show footage of a reigning Russian champion who slipped and fell, dropping out of contention – in order to maintain the nail-biting tension with her American rival. When viewers discovered they were victims of false suspense, public reaction was predictably hostile. In Australia, a campaign has been launched to change the way national television broadcasts the Olympics after a myopic focus on swimming which was a traditional sporting strength until London.
We all see the world through filters, and often we have dominant lenses, whether we realize it or not. An encounter with difference, such as a trip overseas, exposes our personal filters and we see part of ourselves in a different light, or even for the first time. Lenses are always contextual- jostling for position based on circumstance. The Olympics taps into our national filters and cultural pride, punctuated by transcendent moments or compelling stories that remind us of our shared humanity. However fleeting, these are potent connections in a world where difference is increasingly important. Heavy-handed attempts to control filtered experience are increasingly misplaced. Americans are already cutting the umbilical cord of cable. Four years from now in Rio de Janeiro, the Olympics experience on television must look and feel different, or it will not survive.