The Increasing Instant Nostalgia in Mediated Sports

Curator's Note

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) reboot hit theaters just 10 years after its original, and only 5 yeas after the last series installment (mentioned in IMR posts August 6-10th). Moments-ago ousted reality television contestants are forced to relive and pine for their experiences on shows like Big Brother and American Idol through pre-edited video packages and reflection-inducing interviews. These texts are part of an increasingly dominant mode of mediated past remembrance called "instant nostalgia." Nowhere is this more evident than in sports media. From Sportscenter highlights to post-game and halftime recaps, the past is always and instantly present.

The clip featured here is from NBC' 2008 Olympic broadcast moments after Michael Phelps won his 8th Beijing gold medal. Olympics' tape delay concerns exist, but the primetime broadcast is still the first time many see events (much to the chagrin of many London Olympics viewers). This Phelps video package and DVD were prepared in advance to capitalize on the instant nostalgia of those caught up in the moment. Phelps' Beijing run may be unmatchable (along with his career), but media's increasing instant nostalgia allowed no room for healthy comparison in this instance. Instead, sports media personalities immediately asked whether his performance was the "greatest ever." With time to reflect, NBC's 2012 Olympic coverage revisited Phelps' achievements often, such as ESPN declaring that "Alex Morgan's epic goal is an instant classic" mere hours after the U.S. Women's semi-final Soccer match. Maybe it is, maybe that's just prisoner-of-the-moment thinking.

Mediated sports' instant nostalgia is also prevalent during every major championship game. Moments, literally, after a team wins, the players don hats memorializing their victory as they hold up pre-printed newspapers. A short time after each Super Bowl, a requisite Disney World commercial airs, which asks the MVP what they will do now that they have "just won the Super Bowl?" The key word in this nostalgia-soaked, commodity-loaded, question is "just." There is no time for reflection with this rushed on-field question, leading to a simplified, inevitable, and commodified answer. MVPs and audience members are asked to make instant historical reflections.

These sports media practices reduce complexity and condense opportunities to reflect and learn from history.


Really intriguing post, Ryan. It seems to me the processes you take up here through the Phelps video is part of a long history of anticipation and premediation across the media industries -- these memorializations get produced not because of the instantaneous urgency of the moment, but precisely because major media corporations are anticipating them so intensely and intently. We could put the classic "Dewey Defeats Truman" in this history as well, along with the pre-prepared obituaries of major public figures.

It's worth thinking about how much the speed of this work -- the "just" that you put pressure on really nicely -- is predicated on the reproducibility and malleability of media information -- the ability, say, to preproduce the Phelps DVD to be deployed as needed. Your invocation of the classic Disney World moment called to my mind a counternarrative of that faux immediacy, namely the process of disposing of thousands of "Super Bowl Champs" shirts and hats with the name and insignia of the losing team, often by shipping them to developing countries at great cost and seemingly little humanitarian return. There's a kind of alternate history that accrues through these items, one that troubles the instant reflection (and celebration) you're critiquing here.

Thanks Paul, I think you make some really great observations about the reproducibility and malleability of media information. Would these issues exist in the same manner when the effort it took to distribute and display this material was more intensive and time consuming? I am thinking of how I missed Usain Bolt's 100m dash a few weeks ago, and despite NBC's resistance to posting the event online before the primetime broadcast I was able to see a phone captured version of it on YouTube (before it was swiftly taken down).

I also couldn't agree more with your discussion of the discarded Super Bowl apparel and the alternate histories that are created through this process. I see really interesting connections between your post about the discarded E.T. Atari cartridges and this shirt and hat disposal. In each instance, the discarded materials live on specifically because they were meant not to. The shirts persist because they still become someone's clothing, while the game (that was supposedly so bad it should be forgotten) persists because of the story about its disposal.

Great post.

Taking a bit of a step back, it seems to me that this phenomenon is an instance of capital's double effect on the historical imagination: the inability to think historical difference (a "classic" event of a time truly not our own), and an understanding of the present as apotheosis of history (everything is better). 

At the same time, one might see in this instant nostlagia a kind of capture, and banalization/commodification, of the desire for a truly world-historical event, which is the (dialectical) obverse of the atrophy of historicity.

I'm interested in why it is that, at least in the U.S., sports are such a ripe arena for these tensions. Even while there have been pop-culture spoofs like "Best Week Ever," instant nostalgia in sports seems to still be able to take itself seriously and generate some kind of gravitas.   



Thanks for the comments, Matt. I am so glad you brought up Best Week Ever, as I definitely think it is a big part of this increasing instant mediated nostalgia. I am thinking about the way in which this series came to be, where the "I Love the..." series was imported from Britain and eventually ran out of nostalgic media fodder by burning through the 70s, 80s, and 90s so quick that they started to memorialize a time period (the new millennium) that had barely started. Your thoughts on the double historical effect are important to note. These media practices certainly encourage only a simplified and banal conception of history where the past becomes increasingly defined by the pop culture texts themselves (including sporting events) as opposed to shared cultural events or histories. I do think this commodification of history seeks to fill a void or desire for historical connection on a deep level, but only feeds surface. But also, as you note, these instant reflections flatten the distinction between the past and the present in a manner Jameson discussed as the loss of the American radical past. Why should we consider the past as different (even better) than our own time when what is current is "clearly" the best there ever was? We are asked to be simultaneously nostalgic but presentist.

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