No figure dominated last year’s television sports landscape like Michael Phelps, winner of eight gold medals in swimming during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. None of Phelps’ events was closer than the 100m butterfly, in which Phelps beat Serbia’s Miolrad Cavic by .01 seconds, and the event featured in this clip.
Despite – of perhaps because of – Phelps’ ubiquity, NBCOlympics.com urged viewers to "[c]atch Michael Phelps’ closest Beijing race from a whole new view": underwater. The clip begins with NBC’s Beijing logo, then dissolves quickly to an unfamiliar view of the Water Cube: looking up at the shimmering surface, the swimmers’ bodies distorted, tiny, barely visible. The starting buzzer sounds and the swimmers burst into the water, Phelps’ lanky frame clad in the sleek, high-tech black Speedo Lzr Racer suit (in contrast to most of his bare-chested competitors). His body reaches and wriggles rhythmically in the awkward butterfly stroke; he reaches, turns, and kicks off the black cross at the far wall, wriggling and reaching again and again until his final brief glide to the near wall. Throughout we hear audio that clearly doesn’t "fit": nonstop commentary from excited announcers and high-pitched cheers and whistles from the crowd impossibly augment the view from a camera moving along the pool floor. And when the race ends, the shot lingers, inexplicably, for nearly twenty seconds; we see the swimmers’ bodies, their heads invisible above the surface of the water, their arms and legs occasionally flailing the water or draped over the lane chains to stay in place.
In many ways, isn’t this footage profoundly unremarkable? It offers a privileged perspective, enabling a better view of the movement of the swimmers’ bodies and their technique than any seat in the stands. It offers conventional narration from announcers – a mixture of banal observations and useful insights, building in volume and increasing in pace as the race reaches its climax and conclusion. It shows human bodies, hopefully untainted by illicit substances, moving unnaturally in an artificial environment, adhering to arbitrarily chosen rules. It is, of course, branded with a corporate logo. Doesn’t it show, in other words, everything that we expect from television coverage of sports?
Yet isn’t part of what makes this remarkable both the absolute normality of this coverage and the direction it suggests for the future of sports coverage? It exploits technological advances that allow a seemingly infinite number of angles and indefinite access to video footage, allowing viewers the illusion of absolute choice in what to see and when. It was part of NBC’s "saturation" stratagem, in which more than 800 hours of Olympic events, recaps, and commentary were distributed across the conglomerate’s holdings to maximize viewership – under the theory that viewers can never get too much sports coverage.
What, ultimately, does this footage mean? Does it allow us to experience the purported "magic" of sports, the unrepeatable and unexpected performance of the human body – or does it undermine that experience? What do we make of this "whole new view" of sports (and is it a "whole new view")?