Congratulations, NBC: You Finally Made a Tear-Jerking Segment That Isn’t Terrible

Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 11 2014 12:58 PM

Congratulations, NBC: You Finally Made a Tear-Jerking Segment That Isn’t Terrible

Alex and Frédéric Bilodeau
Canada's Alex Bilodeau celebrates his gold medal with brother Frédéric at the Men's Freestyle Skiing Moguls final.

Photo by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday in Sochi, the Québécois freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau won his second consecutive gold medal for Canada in the men’s moguls, and his brother, Frédéric, was there to cheer him on. You may have missed the Bilodeau brothers’ triumph, though, if you were otherwise occupied with the emergency rehydrating and nose-blowing made necessary by the preceding NBC featurette on Alex and Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy. In the segment, Alex speaks movingly of Frédéric’s stamina and fortitude. “If he wouldn’t be handicapped, he would probably be a three-time Olympic champion,” Alex says through tears. “He’s got that motivation.”

After years or decades of enduring NBC’s lachrymose Olympics coverage, you’d think that a veteran viewer’s tear ducts would have dried up and rusted over by now. This is especially true for those of us who came of age during the blighted John Tesh years, when Olympic hopefuls were refused a spot in the finals unless they had first struck backlit poses to New Age compositions before a Vaseline’d lens while a smooth baritone voiceover catalogued the death and/or disease and/or desertion that made the athlete’s Olympic dreams at once more improbable and more palpable for the audience at home. By those standards, the Bilodeau segment was borderline matter-of-fact. It was brisk and to-the-point, the point being to reduce the viewer to a watery heap of melting snow and brotherly devotion.


Even assuming NBC has forever renounced the Tesh crimes of yore, let’s not give it too much credit. Alex Bilodeau is the reason the segment works so well, because he eloquently powers past the usual bromides about “inspiration” and invites us to confront an existential conundrum: If you could extract Frédéric’s character and drive and place it inside a body like Alex’s, would you get a three-time Olympic champion? And even a segment as skillfully executed as this one cannot transcend its essential function, which is to render a star athlete’s less fortunate loved one as a device for dialing up pathos and adversity. We are invited to view Frédéric less as a person than as an object of pity, a useful plot turn. That’s why this segment on the Bilodeaus from the Canadian broadcast network CTV, though very similar to NBC’s (the two spots share much of the same B-roll), is superior: because it does Frédéric the small courtesy of letting him speak for himself.

I would love to see a movie about the Bilodeaus—or any number of other Olympians and their families—by a filmmaker like Lucy Walker, the Oscar-nominated documentarian who made last year’s The Crash Reel, about snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his grueling recovery from a traumatic brain injury. Among The Crash Reel’s supporting players are members of Pearce’s close-knit family, including his older brother David, a Special Olympics competitor with Down syndrome; David’s lifelong struggle to accept his disabilities is mirrored in Kevin’s slow, painful reckoning with the reality that he will never compete again. One of The Crash Reel’s biggest virtues is in treating David not as a plot catalyst or oxytocin trigger but as Kevin’s peer. It’s clear that Alex Bilodeau feels the same way about his brother.

Alex Bilodeau hug

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.