My favorite part of the Olympic Games isn’t necessarily watching the competitions, but witnessing distinctly “Olympic moments” — an event less defined by athletic prowess than by international weirdness and controversy. For me, watching Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time is exciting, but not nearly as interesting as a bunch of badminton players getting expelled for poor sportsmanship.
So far, my favorite Olympic moment has been the controversy of South Korean fencer Shin A-Lam, who essentially staged a “fencing filibuster” after she was robbed of her medal in the Women’s Individual Epeé semifinals. Shin’s opponent, Germany’s Britta Heidemann, was awarded the victory due to some faulty time-keeping, so Shin denied the judges’ ruling by refusing to leave the piste (the fencing platform). After reading several articles on the match, I was surprised that BuzzFeed — a site best known for propagating memes and listicles of cat photos — had the best coverage of it. In fact, I think BuzzFeed has been doing much of the best reporting on the London Games, at least when it comes to my much-loved Olympic moments.
Take a look at Kevin Lincoln’s write up on Shin’s fencing match. Whereas most sports coverage tends to use images or video as accompaniment for the article, Lincoln’s narrative weaves all of these things together. It’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen, with just the right balance of context, editorial commentary, and visual exposition. And perhaps there’s nothing stronger than the defiance expressed in this GIF:
BuzzFeed certainly isn’t the first site to do animated GIFs when discussing sports — SB Nation is perhaps best known for sports GIFs, and of course, there is all of Tumblr — but I’ve yet to see another publication integrate these various visual and written elements into a seamless report.
Compare Lincoln’s piece with The Guardian’s coverage of the match, which glosses over Shin’s passion and bravery with these two weak sentences: “Shin broke down in tears for the second time and, while her opponent celebrated, she remained on the piste. The bronze medal match and the final both had to be put back while the row went on, but almost 75 minutes later Shin was led off.” I searched for coverage on the event on The New York Times site, which only turned up box scores.
BuzzFeed has an advantage in that it is unencumbered by a legacy of journalistic style and the limitations of the printed page. Traditional publications must feel the same way, since BuzzFeed is certainly not the only site trying alternative, light-hearted coverage of the London Games. The Wall Street Journal‘s “Homemade Highlights” series, like this one on the badminton scandal, features twee popsicle stick puppets reenacting specific events. Similarly, The Guardian has a series called Brick by Brick, which do the same thing with LEGOs (though this one about Shin A-Lam totally misses the point).
Granted, BuzzFeed still has its roots as a pageview-hungry aggregator with a knack for sensational headlines and repackaged content. On Saturday, the site ran a list of “The 20 Hottest Olympic Track and Field Babes,” which is exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped the site would avoid. But on the same day, the Times ran a takedown piece on U.S. track-and-field star Lolo Jones, chastising the athlete for claiming to be a virgin and choosing to pose naked in ESPN The Magazine. The whole piece reeked with cynicism, insinuating that viewers should not pay attention to Jones because she would likely not medal. (Also, I’m also entirely turned off when a writer refers to a biracial person as an “exotic beauty.”) I don’t approve of the BuzzFeed piece, but I’ll take a trashy listicle over a sexist hatchet job any day.
While the Olympics are an important cultural event, they are not serious. It’s like the United Nations — an entirely symbolic gesture, built on the idealism of a unified world (although more countries participate in the Games than in the United Nations). This is why the Olympics are so much fun. It encompasses the best of what sports has to offer: it’s competitive, and it’s as meaningful as you want it to be. As a viewer, you can turn on just about any event and get wrapped up in a sport that you previously knew nothing about, rooting hard for athletes whose names you’ve never heard before. It’s even better when you’re cheering with friends.
When I read Olympics coverage in the Times, I’m reading a summary that is in the same style and tone as reporting on the War in Afghanistan. From the grabby headlines and reliance on visuals, it’s clear that BuzzFeed’s content has been optimized to be shared, designed to be retweeted and reblogged. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to the Olympics, an event that is, at its core, a celebration, BuzzFeed is better able to capture the spirit of the events, more fun and digestible, more easily shared with friends and family.
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