The Olympics Sap-o-Meter.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 11 2008 12:08 PM

The Olympics Sap-o-Meter

Finally, a scientific way to measure the sappiness of NBC's Olympics coverage.

We all know that, come Olympics time, NBC goes way overboard with the heartwarming tales of diseases conquered, hardship overcome, and human spirits uplifted. Yet there's never been a tool to determine, scientifically, just how saccharine NBC's coverage really is. Until now. Welcome to Slate's Olympics Sap-o-Meter!

Here's how it works. After slogging through Olympic broadcasts of yore, we drew up a list of 33 syrupy words that NBC has chronically overused: adversity, battled, cancer, challenges, courage, cry, death, dedication, determination, dream, emotion, glory, golden, hardship, heart, hero, inspiration, inspire, journey, magic, memory, miracle, mom, mother, Olympic-sized, overcome, passion, proud, sacrifice, spirit, tears, tragedy, triumph. While these 33 words are by no means an unabridged collection of schmaltzy nouns, adjectives, and verbs, they're a good sampling of NBC's bathos. Think of them as the Dow Jones of sap.

Each night, the Sap-o-Meter will power up as NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage commences. Whenever one of our magic words gets uttered, it will record a single Sap Point. (For example, the following hypothetical declaration would earn an impressive three Sap Points: "Lopez Lomong's journey to America is an Olympic-sized inspiration.") At the end of the evening, we'll add up the Sap Points and report the total Sap-o-Meter score, which you'll find in the snazzy animated graphic you see at the top of the screen. (Note: Since we're working from closed-caption data, which contains misspellings and occasionally misses words, we are unlikely to catch absolutely everything. We've also yet to develop technology that automatically detects sappy violin music. We hope to roll out that feature in time for the 2012 Games.)

But wait, there's more. The daily Sap-o-Meter page will also include a tag cloud in which our 33 cloying words grow larger each time they're said by Bob Costas and Co. Take a peek at the cloud every morning and try to guess the winner of the inspirational, magical, triumphant title of Sappiest Word of the 2008 Olympic Games. (Mouse over each word in the cloud to see how many times it's been used so far.)

We'll also be choosing the Sappiest Line of the Day, a subjective take on the night's most wince-inducing moment. That's where you come in: The Sap-o-Meter can count words, but only you can help us identify when NBC has reached the pinnacle of treacle. Please send your Sappiest Line of the Day suggestions to; e-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. And if you happen to know the approximate time your favorite line appeared on the air, it will be a lot easier to track down.

Now, on to the inaugural Sap-o-Meter tally. Last night, Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak, and their teammates in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay delivered a stunning last-second victory over the trash-talking French team. NBC's instant declaration: Last night's team effort was "one of the most incredible team efforts we've ever seen!" That gosh-wow performance sealed a sickly-sweet evening of sentimentality for NBC. The result: an impressive 29 on the Sap-o-Meter.

Just as in a historic relay performance, every word must pull its weight to get a world-record Sap-o-Meter score. Dream soared with six mentions. Mom—the star of those heartstring-tugging Olympic profiles—clocked in with an impressive five. And overcome, heart, and emotion were key contributors to the Sap-o-Meter's first official run with three mentions apiece.

Sappiest Line of the Day: "Behind the smiles, they'll never be able to explain the sacrifices made, or adversities overcome."—NBC commentator Al Trautwig, narrating a profile of the American women's gymnastics team. (Emphasis on sap words is ours.)

Did we miss your favorite moment? Send your Sappiest Line of the Day suggestions to

Sap-o-Meter History
(click on any bar to read that day's entry)

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at the Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.


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