Under normal circumstances during NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics, it might be unusual for a legendary swimmer to provide the most insightful and compassionate commentary on the story of the day in gymnastics.
Of course, Michael Phelps is no ordinary swimmer. Simone Biles is no ordinary gymnast. And what unfolded Tuesday morning in Tokyo and aired on prime-time television several hours later in prime-time stateside, was no ordinary story.
When Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist considered the most accomplished gymnast of all time, shockingly pulled out of the women’s team competition Tuesday morning after twice— once during warmups and once in competition — completing only 1½ rotations in a vault that required 2½, NBC was left in a complicated spot for an assortment of reasons, some beyond its control and some of its own doing.
Some aspects of the coverage it got right. Some it did not. But when Biles bravely acknowledged that she needed to focus on her mental health, NBC was wise to turn to Phelps, a 23-time gold medalist swimmer and current analyst, to discuss with host Mike Tirico the sometimes crushing weight of Olympic expectations.
Phelps is one of few people on the planet who could understand the pressures Biles faces, and for several years now he has been candid regarding his own mental health struggles. He was a welcome and necessary voice on NBC’s coverage Tuesday night.
“The Olympics is overwhelming,’’ he said. “I mean talk about ‘weight of gold,’ we need someone who we can trust. Somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen. Allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who’s not going to try and fix us. We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us. It broke my heart. But also, if you look at it, mental health is something over the last 18 months that people are talking about.
“Nobody is perfect. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters. But I think the biggest thing is that we all need to ask for help sometimes, too, when we go through those times. I can say for me personally that it was something that was very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
NBC, which in 2014 agreed to pay $7.6 billion to extend its Olympics broadcast rights deal through 2032, is always going to try to maximize exposure for the most popular athletes and sports in prime time — something Phelps knows well from his five Olympic Games. No athlete came into these games with more high-wattage Olympic star power than Biles.
When she dropped out Tuesday, NBC was left in a conundrum: How to cover such significant news during the morning and afternoon without making the evening airing of the event anticlimactic? Because Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the United States, the event initially aired live beginning at 6:45 a.m. on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, with the taped prime-time showing set for NBC at 8 p.m.
Much of the awkwardness came in the morning as NBC was forced to formulate its coverage plan in real time and never quite got it right. On the “Today” show in the morning, the story was reported and often discussed, but only still photos and not video footage were shown, so not to spoil the evening’s coverage.
One particularly awkward moment: When co-host Hoda Kotb yelled “I love you!’’ to Biles and the US gymnasts, then turned to the few people in the venue and said, “Don’t you love Simone Biles?” I’m still cringing.
The evening coverage had a couple of frustrating moments, most notably when NBC cut to a Peacock promo while play-by-play voice Terry Gannon was talking after Biles’s first and only official vault. But if one could set aside the pure weirdness of airing a taped broadcast 13 hours after the Biles situation became newsworthy and covering it like it was unfolding live, it was mostly well-done.
NBC’s gymnastics broadcasters — Gannon, analysts and former gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett, and reporter Andrea Joyce — showed immediate concern about Biles when she struggled with her warmup vault, almost to the point of prescience. “That was bizarre right there,’’ said Daggett. “We just saw Simone kind of look like she almost got a little bit lost in the air, which frankly I’ve never seen her do.”
Then, moments later, as Biles warmed up for vault, Liukin and Gannon had this exchange:
Liukin: “The amount of pressure that she has on her shoulders, not just her teammates, but the entire nation, and not just the nation but the entire world, is expecting her to be the best just like she always is, and that’s a lot.”
Gannon: “It’s the rarest air. There’s nobody else occupying it right now. And it has to be a lonely place right now.”
Liukin: “Nobody knows what it feels like except for Simone Biles.”
After she faltered again, Daggett said, “Wow. And that … was not what was planned.”
An NBC spokesperson said that the prescient commentary was not added later in the day, after the outcome, but was recorded “live to tape”— meaning the broadcasters called it live with the intent to air later — in the morning.
“Nearly all of our primetime gymnastics coverage on Tuesday night was recorded ‘live to tape’ during the competition as it happened,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Minor elements were post-produced since the competition needed to be edited for time in primetime. Our team was well prepared and quickly pivoted to the breaking news as it happened in real time, and that’s what viewers saw in the primetime show.”
Still, the most insightful part of NBC’s four-plus hours of prime time coverage Tuesday was not watching Biles’s gracious decision to bow out hours after we knew it happened. It was the words of a legendary swimmer who knew just what a legendary gymnast was going through.