Though sports media isn’t Turnkey’s (or my) specialty, I was compelled to put together today’s post after watching the 2011 Visa Championships (i.e., the annual national championship meet for American gymnasts) this past Saturday night on NBC.
The Championships are a jewel event on the USA gymnastics calendar, as evidenced by the fact that the final round of the women’s competition is often televised live in prime time on network television. However, this year’s meet held additional significance as the first high-pressure competition occurring less than a year before the 2012 Olympic Games.
USA gymnastics uses a selection committee to pick the majority of the members of the world and Olympic teams. As such, a few dozen elite American gymnasts will spend the next 10 months under a microscope, trying to make a strong enough impression on the selection committee to be granted a ticket to the Games.
The women’s portion of Saturday’s meet featured a pack of gymnasts competing for a total of five national titles (one all-around crown, and individual event titles on the balance beam, floor exercise, vault, and uneven bars). After a sloppy preliminary round on Thursday night (televised live on Universal Sports), the athletes were looking markedly stronger on Saturday. The meet was exciting and full of great performances by athletes both new to the scene (Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney) and familiar (Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone).
Also featured was 18-year-old Rebecca Bross, the winner of the all-around title at last year’s meet.
On the vault, her third event of the night, Bross struggled in the air and landed badly, immediately grasping her right knee and crying out after hitting the mat. Everyone watching – in person or on TV – could tell right away that something was not right.
Injuries in any sport are no fun; however, in the world of gymnastics, they are especially tough to take. The ultimate goal of every elite gymnast is to compete in the Olympic games. These gymnasts train for 10-15 years just to have a chance to vie for a spot on the 5-7 woman team that’s formed once every four years to compete in one meet. Much depends on timing (many gymnasts are unfortunate enough to reach their peaks in non-Olympic years), so for those athletes lucky enough to be at their best during an Olympic cycle, the consequences of an injury in the year leading up to the Games are often catastrophic.
When Bross hit the mat following her vault, the members of NBC’s broadcasting team (Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, and Andrea Joyce) gasped. Then, something interesting happened. Instead of keeping the shot on Bross, who was sobbing on the floor while being attended to by coaches and staff, or replaying the vault over and over in slow motion, or breathlessly hypothesizing about the ramifications of the fall, the team spoke a few quick words and then sat in silence as NBC’s cameras panned across the somber, distressed faces of other gymnasts, coaches, parents, and audience members.
This poignant approach didn’t sensationalize the fact that an 18 year old girl (and America’s best gymnast, until that night’s medal ceremony) may have just lost her shot at the goal she’s been working towards since the age of 5; rather, it used pictures and silence to respectfully illustrate the power (and consequences) of the moment on everyone in the gym (including Bross’ competitors).
NBC’s approach was restrained and dignified. It proved that the most sensational angle isn’t always the most impactful, and managed to preserve the privacy of the moment for Bross herself.
Perfect 10’s are now a thing of the past in gymnastics, but – forgive the cliche – NBC’s work on Saturday night earned them the modern day equivalent in my book. Kudos to the team at 30 Rock for a job very well done.