Olympic Games offer a unique union of sport and storyby Jeff Jones, Minnesota Public Radio
As newsroom arguments go, the one about the Olympics is pretty tame. But every other year, it does happen -- in pretty much the same way.
Someone asks if we should warn listeners before giving the results of Olympics competitions that won't be on TV until evening. Then someone else says the listeners are grown-ups who can handle hearing news stories without spoiler alerts.
No matter what balance we strike, some listeners will be annoyed because they are either 1) sports fans who see sporting results as news, or 2) drama fans who want to watch an athlete's story unfold without knowing the ending.
That both groups care enough to let us know illustrates what makes the Olympics special -- a successful union of sport and story, athleticism and emotion.
NBC knows it has to serve both audiences. It's why sports fans can watch hockey, curling and ski races live on cable during the day. And why, for the drama fans, the network prepares soft-focus hard-luck profiles to intensify the stories playing out in prime time.
NBC producers gamble that even tape-delayed Olympic drama -- with some snowboarding thrown in for spectacle -- can rival the manufactured story lines of "CSI" or "The Bachelor."
Usually, they're right. Sports transcends statistics when you add the human storyline. That's why an injured Lindsey Vonn skiing the women's downhill helped NBC beat "American Idol" in the ratings for the first time in six years (and why some claim NBC trumped up the injury in the first place).
And while it's easy to go overboard with all those tales of perseverance and near misses, the fact is there's no shortage of amazing personal stories at the Olympics. For every superstar whom Red Bull sponsors, conditions and overexposes, there are dozens of self-made amateur athletes with real stories to tell.
Here are two of my favorites:
Minneapolis cross-country skier Caitlin Compton won't get an NBC profile -- and probably not a medal either -- but her story is remarkable. She's not a member of the U.S. Ski Team and she trains in the public parks of flat Minneapolis rather than the elite ski camps of Europe or New England.
Compton makes enough money to compete by teaching kids to ski, and once last year she couldn't afford to fly her skis back from a competition without the help of a former Olympian. Last Monday, Compton was the fastest American in the women's 10k indivdual race in Whistler.
Then there's the guy who may be having the most fun of anyone at the games. Chris Plys, of Duluth, is the alternate for the U.S. men's curling team, so he spent his time on the bench watching his teammates and updating Twitter about the Olympic experience.
Entertainment Weekly took notice and named Plys Olympic Stud of the Day. MTV featured him playing his guitar in a Vancouver park. Now he plans to record an album after the games. (After a disappointing string of losses, the men's team has now called on Plys to play in competition.) Caitlin and Chris are Minnesotans doing the things Minnesotans do in the winter. We play on the ice and we play on the snow. And when we watch them compete, we know how difficult their accomplishments are.
Radio stations and the Internet shouldn't withhold results for the sake of a TV audience. But we also shouldn't forget that news is about more than results.
The best journalism breaks news while telling a tale that makes the news relevant and memorable. The best sporting events do the same. In a world flush with corporate athletes and scripted dramas, the Olympics capture the imagination by being -- mostly -- real.
Jeff Jones is an MPR News producer and "commissioner" of the MPR Fantasy Olympics.