The Sap-o-Meter Is Back! Just How Schmaltzy Was NBC’s Weekend Olympics Coverage?

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 30 2012 5:29 PM

The London Olympics Sap-o-Meter

The return of Slate’s scientific guide to the schmaltziness of NBC’s Olympics coverage.

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In 2008, Slate’s team of scientists, engineers, and nutritionists debuted the Sap-o-Meter, the first-ever attempt to quantify NBC’s gooey, uplifting-narrative-obsessed coverage of the Olympic Games. In its Beijing debut, the Sap-o-Meter counted 722 sappy words, including 98 mentions of everyone’s favorite Olympic figure, mom. When the Sap-o-Meter returned for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the count declined to 671 (perhaps sap freezes in cold weather), with dream overtaking mom as the games’ sappiest word.

After a two-year hiatus, Slate’s sap statisticians are rested and ready. Tears will be shed. Dreams will be dashed, and dreams will be fulfilled. Moms and dads will be spotted. There will be inspiration and dedication and emotion.

Before we begin, here are the 36 sappy words we’re tracking: adversity, battled, cancer, challenges, courage, cry, dad, daughter, death, dedication, determination, dream, emotion, father, glory, golden, heart, hero, inspiration, inspire, journey, magic, memory, mom, mother, overcome, parents, passion, patriotic, proud, sacrifice, son, spirit, tears, tragedy, triumph. If amateur sapologists want to try keeping score at home, please note that we register one Sap Point whenever we hear one of these magic words during NBC’s prime-time Olympics broadcasts. If heart is mentioned in a nonsappy context—in regard to a shooter who wants to lower his heart rate, for instance—a Sap Point will not be registered. And though the Sap-o-Meter is finely tuned, it is not infallible. We are working from transcripts that occasionally skip over words, so it’s possible we won’t catch every single mom.

Now, let the games begin! Friday’s opening ceremony offered a visual and sonic journey through Great Britain’s pastoral roots, the Industrial Revolution, and the age of texting. On a night that featured a giant baby and the queen parachuting into London’s Olympic Stadium, NBC anchors Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer alternated between expressing awe and ignorance. Sap was not in abundance, however, as NBC’s four-and-a-half-hour broadcast totaled just 31 Sap Points, down from a remarkable 68 during the Vancouver opening ceremony.

Rather than Vieira and Lauer, the ceremony’s most sentimental speaker was one of Britain’s own, London 2012 organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe. The Sappiest Line of the Day comes from Coe’s short speech, with sap-word emphasis our own:

London 2012 will inspire a generation. In every Olympic sport there is all that matters in life: Humans stretched to the limit of their abilities, inspired by what they can achieve, driven by their talent to work harder than they can believe possible, living for the moment but making an indelible mark upon history.

When the Olympic competition kicked off in earnest on Saturday, the spigot turned on and the games began oozing more sap than a maple tree. In NBC’s klieg light were two-time gold medalists in beach volleyball Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings; the men’s gymnastics team; and a corps of charismatic aquatic figures led by Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Missy Franklin. Dreamshearts (one “the size of Dublin”), and journeys loomed large, with three mentions each.

But it was Olympians’ familial bonds that really gave the Sap-O-Meter a workout, boosting the night’s total to a syrupy 45 Sap PointsMom logged eight nods, mother one, parents two, father two, and dad a whopping 10, with many of those parental references coming in soft-focus segments on the families of American gymnasts Danell Leyva and John Orozco. This preoccupation also produced the Sappiest Line of the Day, in which gymnastics commentator/sap dispenser Tim Daggett glowingly sketched the relationship between Leyva and his stepfather, Yin Alvarez. “They are a team. They work together. It's been their dream, their family's dream, not to just get here, as they said, but to win Olympic gold."

NBC’s weekend ended with that always reliable generator of treacle, women’s gymnastics. Reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber’s failure to qualify for the women’s all-around competition got the Sap-o-Meter buzzing with five references to tears. Shots of the gymnasts’ families—“Parents getting so much attention, as they deserve, in these Olympics,” NBC’s Al Trautwig declared self-servingly—helped the Sap-o-Meter finish strong, tying Saturday’s total with 45 Sap Points. Trautwig’s focus on Wieber’s lachrymose moment also earned him Sunday’s Sappiest Line of the Day honors. "And once again, the tears flow for Team USA," the announcer said. We’re guessing the peacock would like those tears to keep on flowing.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.

Krystal Bonner is a Slate intern.

Natasha Geiling is a Slate intern.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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