Was This the Sappiest Olympics Ever? The Final Results of Our Scientific Study of NBC Schmaltz

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 13 2012 1:30 PM

The London Olympics Sap-o-Meter

Was this the sappiest Olympics ever? Did mom out-sap dream? The final results of our scientific study of NBC schmaltz.

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Grab your handkerchiefs, Olympics watchers—it’s almost time for the Sap-o-Meter to say goodbye for another two years. But before the sultans of sap return to their lachrymose lair, there are plenty of tear-stained questions to answer. Was this the sappiest Olympics in recorded Sap-o-Meter history? Could mom unseat reigning champion dream as the Sappiest Word of the Olympics? Did any NBC personality out-sap gymnastics schmaltz fiend Tim Daggett?

We’ll get to all of that, but first a review of the weekend’s broadcasts. Following a lightly sweetened prime-time broadcast on Thursday, NBC’s Olympic sap nearly stopped flowing on Friday. On a night where the U.S. women set a world record in the 4x100-meter relay, athletic achievement trumped sappy narrative, sending the Sap-o-Meter to a London low of 29 Sap Points. Considering that the final Friday of the Vancouver Games delivered an all-time-low 13 Sap Points, we can now declare that this is the day where Olympic sap goes to die.

But a not-so-sappy day for NBC is far from sap-free. On this night the peacock featured a segment on the comeback of Bryshon Nellum, who made it to the Olympics after getting shot in the legs in 2008. The Sappiest Line of the Day came from Nellum himself: “Now that I was able to overcome, I dream about hero things now. I dream about me winning the gold medal, crossing the line, or just representing the United States, and carrying that flag around the track.”

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The games continued to wind down on Saturday night, with David Boudia’s gold medal in men’s platform diving highlighting NBC’s coverage. Although there were “tears everywhere you look” following Boudia’s win and British diver Tom Daley’s dramatic bronze, most of the night’s courage and determination came during Tom Brokaw’s documentary “Their Finest Hour,” about the British during World War II.

Though some sapologists might not count this decidedly nonsports content, which took up just more than 50 minutes of the peacock’s air time, we’re going to allow it. It came on immediately after Bob Costas’ introduction of the night’s athletic schedule, and Costas kicked off the segment by interviewing Brokaw. This was part of NBC’s Olympics coverage, and we’re going to treat it as part of NBC’s coverage. Once you add it all together, the night generated a remarkable 77 Sap Points, 40 from WWII and 37 from the typical Olympics fare.

A comparison of quotes from “Their Finest Hour” and NBC’s diving coverage gives a good sense of the varying stakes involved. “Their battle by day and night,” Brokaw intoned, discussing the British forces besieged by Nazi Germany, “would determine the life or death of the free world.” And now our Sappiest Line of the Day, courtesy NBC’s Ted Robinson:

There's no question that right now, Tom Daley is the most-watched man in England. Put on a diving board at a young age by his father who was a constant presence and companion. His father passed away from brain cancer at the age of 40 last year. … He said quite understandably that every dive he would perform here was for his father, Rob. Well, this is the dream. One dive for gold.

The Sap-o-Meter took its final bow Sunday night, with NBC piling on gooey retrospectives in front of its broadcast of the London Games’ closing ceremony. The network relived everything from the gold-capped journey of volleyball stars Missy May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings to the sacrifice and dedication of double amputee Oscar Pistorius to the gymnastics dreams of a 6-year-old Kyla Ross. Battles, challenges, and tears (especially Jordyn Wieber’s) added some gravitas, while national heroes (like Scottish tennis player Andy Murray) made their countries proud. At the end of the night, all of those memories added up to a farewell total of 39 Sap Points.

Perhaps mindful of the 18 months we’ll have to wait before our next treacle infusion—don’t forget to tune back in for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia!—Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Organizing Committee, used his farewell speech to drop a mother lode of sap on the Olympic Stadium. Here is his Sappiest Line of the Day:

London 2012 has played host to some incredible sport. To awe-inspiring feats that are the result of incredible dedication and skill by the world's great sportsmen and women. To all the Olympians who came to London to compete—thank you. Those of us who came to watch witnessed moments of heroism and heartbreak that will live long in the memory.

Now, for the sappy recap. The London Games did indeed out-sap the 2008 Summer Games and the 2010 Winter Olympics—our count of 849 sappy words beat Beijing by 127 and blasted Vancouver by 178. The bronze medal for the Sappiest Word of the Olympics is … a tie! Because we are kind and generous and sentimental, we will not go to a tiebreaker sap-off. Instead, parents and proud—each of which was uttered 61 times over NBC’s 17 days of coverage—will both earn bronze. The silver goes to dream, with 74 mentions. And after settling for second place in 2010, mom—emotional, inspirational, teary-eyed mom­—has taken the gold as the Sappiest Word of the Olympics, standing atop the podium with 79 utterances. Congratulations, mom. You earned it.

The rest of the top sap finishers: father (53 mentions), emotion (43), mother (41), dad (39), golden (33), tears (29), and journey (29). And at the bottom of our ledger of 36 sap words: adversity (1), triumph (4), tragedy (4), sacrifice (5), dedication (7), and cancer (7).

And what about the Sappiest Line of the Olympics? It couldn’t belong to anyone else but NBC’s king of the rings and the pommel horse and the floor exercise and the parallel bars. On July 30, Tim Daggett had this to say about his experience winning gymnastics gold in 1984:

You can't even describe the emotion. It's like, take every emotion you have, put ’em in a blender. It felt like there were 10,000 volts of electricity running through my body. Everything was amplified to a point that I’ve really never since felt. But each and every one of us had a dream, and a little magic happened that day.

We couldn’t have said it any better, Tim. See you in Sochi!

Final Sap Stats
849:
The number of sap words uttered in the past two weeks
49.941:
NBC's average daily Sap Score
77:
The highest daily Sap Score
68:
The highest daily Sap Score that did not feature WWII
29:
The lowest daily Sap Score

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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