The Olympics, perhaps more than any other sporting spectacle, are all about emotion. How else do you get viewers to remain glued to a screen and root wholeheartedly for a shot-putter from New Zealand? (Be real, you are not a die-hard put fan.)
And nothing gets a viewer invested in an obscure Olympic sport quite like having their heartstrings tugged. Training montages and epic synthesizer tracks can help.
Enter NBC’s athlete profiles. These videos, produced by NBC Sports and aired during competitions and Opening Ceremonies, give an athlete’s backstory. Maybe it’s the years of ungodly wake-up calls to train. Or the financial hardship that had to be overcome to reach the world’s greatest stage. Or an athlete’s incredibly moving relationship with his brother. (Warning, tears ahead.)
These mini-bios, which last anywhere from 90 seconds to three minutes, have become such an integral part of NBC’s Olympic television programming that maybe you didn’t realize they were there. The aim is to introduce, or reintroduce, viewers to athletes and “give them a reason to care prior to competition,” said Mark Levy, NBC Sports Group senior vice president of original productions.
The profiles put a boxer’s softer side on display. Or provide context for the intense competitive spirit of a badminton player. And Levy insists the goal isn’t to make us cry: “Any time we can associate a part of someone’s story or journey that resonates with one of our viewers, that is what we consider a success.”
NBC first produced these profiles when the network resumed broadcasting the Olympics in 1988, as a way to inform viewers about global athletes, Levy said. During the 1992 Summer Games, the profiles “became a staple of who we are as a network.”
“This was a very important part of our presentation, to supplement the live and taped coverage of an Olympic Games: to tell compelling stories of the athletes and their perseverance and training, and what they put forth to become Olympians,” Levy said.
The casual viewer who watches these profiles in between high dives and pole vaults may not realize the amount of work and forethought put into production. Work begins in earnest 14 to 18 months before Opening Ceremonies, with 25 staff members working on the profiles. Video shoots for the Rio Games required travel to Cuba, Japan and Ukraine.
Even deciding who to profile among the thousands competing is quite an undertaking. NBC will produce profiles of about 50 people this year. That includes profiling more than 10 international athletes, which Levy said was important in the broader Olympic context of highlighting commonalities across cultures and countries.
“Yeah, facilities might be different in Cuba, or in some spots in some of the African countries we went to. But the way they’re trained, coached and strive to achieve their dream of participating in the Olympics is quite common,” he said.
More than a year before the Games, staff began combing through nearly all Olympic sports (although prime-time sports get more consideration), determined who had been performing well in world championships and created a list of potential people to feature.
While some of those profiled will include incredibly well-known veterans like Michael Phelps, “the last time a large majority of Americans may have heard about many of these athletes was four years ago in London,” Levy said.
Expect to see features on everyone from English diver Tom Daley to Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura to American swimmer Katie Ledecky.
Production also has to take into consideration the unique lifestyle of these premier athletes, whose calendars are packed with competition and training.
“That’s why we begin so early, because it’s not something we would say to them, either two weeks before trials — sit you down for a conversation — or a week after trials,” Levy said.
For instance, with Ledecky, “we began early to speak to her, her parents and coaches to determine what would work best in her schedule.”
These profiles tend to zero in on a particularly compelling aspect of an athlete’s Olympic journey. Sometimes there’s narration, or just the athlete’s own voice. And don’t forget the music, usually selected with competitor, story line and country of origin in mind.
But beyond those features, there isn’t a particular tried and true formula that’s been used throughout the decades, Levy said, “because, like anything, production and story-telling and creativity evolve.”
This year, the Games will be live and the broadcast will quickly switch from event to event, meaning there could be a tighter window for these profiles to air.
But no worries: It should only take a couple of minutes to get you to root for a wrestler from New Jersey.