Olympic attention to mental health: can news coverage rotate?

Olympic attention to mental health: can news coverage rotate?

In its coverage, NBC should make it a point to talk to athletes about their mental, not just physical, preparation for the games, said Hillary Cauthen, a sports psychologist from Austin, Texas who is on the executive board of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. That strain was evident when NBC connected Dressel with his parents, wife and sister at home for a conversation shortly after his swim. He started sobbing. “We need to lean into this conversation,” Cauthen said.

For most of the athletes, it has been an extraordinarily intense year. After training with the goal of being ready in 2020, the Games’ postponement to 2021 — and the pandemic that caused it — forced them to decide if they wanted to essentially put another year of their lives on hold for what is often a lonely quest, said Mark Aoyagi, coordinator of the Sports and Performance Psychology program at the University of Denver. The network that presents the games has been forced to pivot, and the addition of Michael Phelps to its broadcast team turned into a master stroke for unanticipated reasons. Yet it’s also worth questioning whether an intense focus on gold is out of touch for what these Games have become.

Then they traveled to a lockdown environment to perform without their friends and family present; indeed, they had hardly any audience at all. Olympic athletes, most notably gymnast Simon Biles, haven’t been afraid to express the mental and emotional difficulties they’ve faced during these pandemic games, a development that’s thrown NBC a curve.

“We never see that story,” he said. “Obviously, NBC highlights those that are in medal contention. It’s a very cultivated story that is presented to people that doesn’t capture the essence of why most of them are over there.” Molly Solomon, executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, objects to any characterization of the network’s philosophy as simply winner takes all. Not many television viewers realize that a large number of competing Olympians understand they have no realistic expectation of winning a medal. For them, simply coming to Tokyo and competing is a joyful accomplishment, Aoyagi said.

By its very nature, the Olympics are an athletic competition. There are winners and losers, dreams fulfilled and dreams dashed. While many athletes thrive in that environment, Biles’ decision to pull out of the team and all-around gymnastics competition is the most prominent sign that for some, the pressure takes a toll. Between cable networks and streaming, NBC Universal peeks into every corner of the Olympics. By far, though, NBC’s prime-time coverage is the window through which most Americans experience the Games, and that is primarily focused on the medal hunt by American athletes in gymnastics, swimming & diving and track & field.

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