KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – At the Olympics, it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how the Games are being presented in the U.S. The prism of NBC determines so much about how and what the American public sees, but we who are here have little access to those primetime packages.
For many Americans, it would appear the defining moment of the Alpine ski races in these Olympics was Bode Miller’s bronze medal in the super-G, and his apparently emotional response to it with NBC’s Christin Cooper. In the moments after the race, Cooper asked about Miller’s brother Chelone, who died last year. Miller, quite naturally, cried.
In the next 24 hours, Cooper was criticized in some circles for pushing too far with those questions. But this was another instance in which what Americans see on television doesn’t always line up with what happened in real life.
Some sausage-making perspective: At the Olympics, athletes are required to walk through what’s called the “mixed zone” at the end of their competitions. It is where they “mix” with the media — essentially a fenced-off area where reporters stand, wait, and ask questions. There is a mixed zone at every venue for every sport.
There is also a hierarchy to the mixed zone, one in which television rights holders from around the globe – networks who have paid the International Olympic Committee for the rights to broadcast the Games – have access to the athletes first. There is, too, a network called Olympic Broadcasting Services, which provides feeds to all sorts of countries – the official feed, if you will. Only after athletes conduct interviews with all the rights holders – not just NBC and OBS, but networks from Russia, Germany, Austria, etc. – do they meet with print journalists.
According to someone who witnessed the exchanges, Miller first spoke with NBC’s Cooper alongside fellow American Andrew Weibrecht, who took silver in the super-G. In this setting, Miller was not asked about Chelone’s death. Miller and Weibrecht then split up and began their obligations with networks from other countries.
When Miller spoke with OBS, though, he was asked whether he dedicated his medal to anyone. This apparently triggered some emotions. When he went to talk to the Russian broadcasters – where Weibrecht had been, a position that was closer to NBC — he was crying.
NBC, then, asked for another chance at Miller – this time without Weibrecht. Cooper asked if this was different than winning Miller’s previous five medals, and Miller brought up his brother. Cooper followed with three more questions involving Chelone (who went by “Chilly”), questions that ended up with Miller bowing his head and falling to his knees.
Miller himself Tweeted after the interview that Cooper wasn’t at fault for anything, and she has been both criticized and defended in the days since the interview. But at the very least, the chronology shows that the moment wasn’t quite as organic as perhaps the television audience believed.