What I Learned Watching the Olympics in Turkmenistan

Ashgabat statue

I have never missed watching the Olympics. When I was a kid, I was glued to the TV during the opening ceremonies, trying to count every single country that walked into the stadium. I cheered on Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug; Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan; Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis. As technology evolved, I moved from watching everything on TV to following along online in real-time whenever I could.

But in 2012, I missed most of the Summer Olympics while I was on my tour of former Soviet countries.  I was in Uzbekistan when they started and then was in Turkmenistan for the rest.  In my Uzbekistan guesthouse, only BBC World News provided any coverage, and nothing live at that – just recaps and photos. Given the high level of censorship and lack of internet access in Turkmenistan, I figured my chances of catching any of the games were low.

Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My hotels in Mary and Ashgabat both carried a Russian sports station, which provided coverage of the Olympics twenty-four hours a day, likely seven days a week. I only caught three days of coverage, but it was enough for me to realize there were some significant differences from how NBC in the United States tends to cover the Olympic games.

They televised events live.

NBC has been living in the dark ages when it comes to their Olympic coverage by insisting on showing major events on tape delay when today we all can find out the results online. This was a major issue during the Vancouver games as they wouldn’t even stream events live on their website even though the results were all over the internet long before TV coverage started. Russian coverage of the Olympics, though, was primarily live despite a time difference of five hours between London and Turkmenistan. If it was during the hours that action was happening, they were showing it live – whether it was women’s weightlifting, archery, swimming or tennis.

They showed events, period.

I spent an entire day in Ashgabat watching the Russian channel’s Olympic coverage. One thing that really stood out was the high percentage of air time devoted to actually showing athletes in action. No endless studio commentary from so-called experts. No lengthy feel-good athlete profiles. Very limited commercial breaks. It was heaven. I actually got to appreciate the ins and outs of the sports and the pace of some of the events. The latter was especially important as NBC tends to focus on certain athletes without showing how an entire event unfolds, which often removes the suspense and drama from watching.

They covered a lot of non-Russian athletes.

Watching Russian television, I assumed most of the coverage would be tilted toward Russian athletes. While I did catch a women’s basketball game between Russia and Great Britain, most of what I saw was a huge variety. They covered swimming events simply because they are popular events – no Russians were contenders. They showed over an hour of the women’s archery quarterfinals with only one Russian participating. They wisely showed only the second set of Russian Vera Zvonareva getting a beatdown from Serena Williams.

I can clearly remember the last winter Olympics, in which NBC would show one American skier in a downhill skiing event. Then they would cut away to a commercial. Then they would return to show another American skier. And repeat. The focus solely on Americans may have pleased some viewers but I would guess for most sports fans it was incredibly frustrating. It gave you no sense of how the event unfolded, no feeling of suspense or anticipation. And since we usually already knew the results online anyway, it was horribly anticlimactic.

The biggest difference I saw?

The Russian channel that I was watching was a dedicated sports channel even when it wasn’t televising the Olympics and I think that made all the difference. Presumably televising the Olympics is a horribly lucrative deal for NBC since they keep doing it. However, it makes far more sense for a station like ESPN to take over – one that is devoted to sports coverage and generally knows how to do it right. ESPN could take ESPN2, ESPN News and ESPNU and simply run Olympic coverage 24/7 like this Russian sports channel does, while streaming live on ESPN3. When live action is happening, show it live. When action is done for the day or before it starts, show replays of the previous day’s highlights. The key is, show as much action and as many athletes from as many countries as possible. It seems so simple…

I can only hope that someday the American media will follow this model, but I kind of doubt it will happen any time soon.

Note: I wrote most of this post in the summer of 2012 while I was in Turkmenistan, but never published it. From what I’ve seen of NBC’s coverage the first few days of the Sochi Olympics is promising. While much is still on tape delay, I have heard they are at least live streaming online. And I have caught coverage of sports like biathlon and ski jumping in addition to the favorite ice skating and downhill skiing events. On the down side, the tape delayed coverage still includes a lot of jumping around.

7 thoughts on “What I Learned Watching the Olympics in Turkmenistan”

  1. I happened to find your blog on the buzzfeed feature on travel a few days ago. I am incredibly frustrated with NBC, because my husband and I don’t have cable (or even an antenna for basic), and because we don’t have cable, we don’t have the login information to be able to watch live events. All I can view of the Olympics online at NBCOlympics are endless commentaries, interviews, and videos of people crashing online. I’ve been infuriated by the inaccessibility of it all, because I’ve heard that in other countries, live streaming is free. I get that it’s all about money, but COME ON. It’s the Olympics. I guess I’ll be getting cable for a month again in 2016, because apparently that’s the only way to watch the Olympics in the USA.

    1. I hear ya! The whole move to digital TV everywhere in the US so that you have to have some kind of cable or antenna to even get network channels is kinda crazy – and definitely hurts when people can’t even get NBC. Sorry to hear their online coverage is so bad (for those who can even access that). I’ve seen several people share online sites to watch other countries’ coverage online – might be worth checking out.

  2. No, it’s still very very frustrating to watch NBC coverage. I’m tired of seeing only a few athletes go in some of the events. I’m tired of the feel good pieces when I could be watching another event. And I’m really tired of showing events during that day that will be covered in the primetime spot. I think those repeats can be used to show other events. Oh and I’m annoyed that Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News started out by saying congrats to Julie Mancuso for winning again. I was waiting to watch it in primetime…so it was completely spoiled. He should have at least known they are saying it later.
    But the big difference is that a lot more other sports channels affiliated with NBC covered the “other” events that aren’t popular, but fun to watch. This Olympics, I’m only getting hockey on the NBC Sports channel and NBC main channel. That’s it. I also agree that ESPN show be doing this and not NBC. I’m tired of it. I especially don’t need to hear Bob Costas go on for 5-10 minutes about his eye infection when I can be watching the action.

    Normally, I will listen online at work, but they blocked it this year. Oh well.

    1. I hear ya! I think it’s an improvement that at least they are showing more during the day when it’s happening, but they still save the “best” stuff for the tape delay in primetime. And then they make no effort to at least keep the results quiet for those who might want to wait to find out in the evening (they did something similar on the Today Show, announcing Mancuso’s result without warning).

  3. Through trial and error, NBC actually does a really good job streaming all the events live. Plus, there is an option to watch the events without commentary, which I did for London and you can hear the announcers in the stadium and it was very entertaining. A lot of why NBC doesn’t air events live is due to the time difference. For the 2008 Olympics, I remember there was an issue with the swimming, as normally the events are held at night, but since NBC wanted to air them live (Michael Phelps and all that), they took place in the morning and that threw a lot of people off their game. Of course, I was in Australia at the time, so most of the events were aired live for me:-). I loved watching the olympics in another country, to get another perspective on everything.

    1. Thats good to know – I haven’t had a reason to try livestreaming yet for these Olympics. For Vancouver, I remember accessing the feed of a Canadian or European channel because NBC wouldn’t live stream then. Although I’ve heard from a few friends who do not have cable that they can’t access the online streaming for Sochi because they have to enter a cable provider.

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