Interviewing athletes at the Olympics?
August 10, 2012 5:31 PM   Subscribe

In the Olympics, when an American athlete finishes competing, cameras show up in their faces, and the athlete gets interviewed. If they won, then they get to talk about the win. If they lost, then they get to talk about how it felt to lose out there in front of 40 million viewers. Here is the question: What obligation does the athlete have to participate in the interviews? What is it that stops them from saying 'screw this' and skipping the interview?

Is the athlete's obligation to the interview because NBC owns the Olympics? Are Athletes forced consent as a condition of being on the team? Do they voluntarily consent because not doing so would make them look bad in the eyes of future endorsement clients?
posted by dfm500 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They are on television and they want to make a good impression.
posted by kindall at 5:33 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the coverage isn't live, so it's possible that they don't show bad interviews.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:38 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

They interview a lot of non-American English-speaking athletes, too. A Malaysian diver, nearly all of the Jamaican runners, a few Brits, etc, etc.

The only reason 99% of viewers know/care who these people are beyond a country is because they do interviews. People do interviews because they want to be known. And generally they want to be known as hard workers and good sports.
posted by phunniemee at 5:40 PM on August 10, 2012

Athletes at that level get most of their money from endorsements and they won't get that unless they play nice with the media.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:50 PM on August 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

I strongly suspect that many of the interviews are prearranged. There was at least one - the interview with the women's volleyball coach - that was framed as if it happened moments after the victory but the floor was empty and they were sweeping up - it was minimum half an hour later. They don't interview every American athlete, just the ones they have "stories" on, and not all of those - I'm thinking of the US platform divers, neither of whom made a statement after they did not medal in the final.

It's actually been pretty interesting to watch a whole bunch of coverage and see how much is scripted - a lot of the individual events are edited as if there are only four or five competitors, max, and the "interesting" people are the only ones competing. All the athletes are unsurprised by the questions and have set, reasonably articulate answers. No one cusses or says anything impolitic.

tl; dr: I think it's a bad assumption to look at the coverage and think that every athlete is really just ambushed as they come off the track and is compliant about it. There are some producers working very hard behind the scenes to arrange this footage, especially the primetime stuff.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:53 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is the athlete's obligation to the interview because NBC owns the Olympics?

NBC owns the US broadcasting rights, nothing more.

For US athletes, this would be governed by the USOC's Code of Conduct for Athletes, which must be signed by all members of Team USA.

I think the relevant bits would be:

As a member of the Team, I hereby promise and agree that I:
  • will attempt to participate in media and sponsor-related activities if compatible with
    my training and competitive schedule, when requested by the USOC Chef de
    Mission, or his or her designee;
  • will remember that at all times I am an ambassador for my sport, my country and the
    Olympic Games Movement.

  • It's worded in a way that allows a little bit of open interpretation, but not much.
    posted by wutangclan at 5:55 PM on August 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

    There's an area called the "mixed zone" which is a kind of media gauntlet, and competitors have to walk through that -- there's no side exit if you had a bad night's work. However, the Olympic organisers and the various federations running each sport make clear that there's no obligation to speak in the mixed zone, though competitors can be required to show up for press conferences after events.

    All of that's separate from the arrangements that exist between teams, broadcasters and sponsors, which are more flexible and ad hoc.
    posted by holgate at 6:00 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

    You don't just get endorsements for winning and being cooperative with the media.

    Two other ingredientss are being photogenic enough, and being skilled at speaking in front of a camera, which isn't like other speaking opportunities. If you want to get endorsements, you take all the practice you can get, and you get maybe a little excited when your comments are aired. It's like an audition for -insert every brand-.
    posted by tulip-socks at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2012

    Even in the event that they might feel negative about it, you do not get as far as they do being an unprofessional ass as far as image management goes.
    posted by rr at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

    It's obviously in the athlete's interest to participate in the dog-and-pony show. But I think the OP is asking what formally obliges them to do so.

    As far as I can tell, unless dictated by the individual athlete's endorsement contracts, it is mainly the national Olympic Committees have this power (via their rules of conduct).
    posted by wutangclan at 7:10 PM on August 10, 2012

    At the USOTC, the athletes have the opportunity to participate in different classes, including learning how to interact with the media. The USOC has a strong incentive to prepare their athletes well for interviews, including post-event interviews. If you watch a lot of them, a lot of the lesser-known (and therefore less-media-experienced) athletes all say similar sorts of things ... not necessarily because they're sports cliches, but because they all went to the same classes on giving interviews.

    This is totally covered in Make It or Break It, the best. show. ever.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 PM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

    Wutangclan's comment about the Code of Conduct is correct. The penalties for violating the Code of Conduct are unclear.

    Also, there is almost certainly something similar in the contract NBC signed with the USOC. A clause that says to the effect: "NBC coverage will not interfere with preparation, training, or overall success of a US Athlete." If NBC causes an athlete to lose it, they are in trouble too - with public opinion, as well as their rights agreement. I am sure that NBC interviewers at the events are told to pull off if the athlete is bugging out. If the athlete does flip out, NBC will get a big-wig like Costas to interview the athlete later, but NBC will not do pressing Nancy Grace style questions as the athlete is having a break-down.
    posted by Flood at 8:08 PM on August 10, 2012

    On the BBC, which has live interviews with athletes, there have been a few particularly frosty ones.
    posted by brilliantmistake at 3:04 AM on August 11, 2012

    Aside from boxing and wrestling competitors, Olympic athletes are professionals. Giving interviews is part of their work.
    posted by Carol Anne at 4:44 AM on August 11, 2012

    In Japan they show all those interviews and it's all just politeness. It's all well and good, but really nothing gets said.

    NHK: Good job out there. You [won / lost], how was that?

    Athlete: I tried my best.

    (two or three questions of polite nothingness.)

    NHK: Thank you.

    Athlete: You're welcome.
    posted by sleepytako at 10:33 AM on August 11, 2012

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