The Joys of NBC’s Raw, Secret, Unscripted, Boring Figure Skating Practice Cam

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 20 2014 12:08 PM

The Joys of NBC’s Raw, Secret, Unscripted, Boring Figure Skating Practice Cam

As our besequined heroes and heroines perform their final flips and spins in Sochi, it’s time to bid farewell to the best online feed of the games.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

NBC is providing more than 1,000 hours of online coverage from Sochi. Live bobsled! Endless curling! A YouTube channel of highlights and features, some of them fantastic. But there’s nothing quite like the network’s live stream of figure skating practice. NBC placed a robotic camera about halfway up in the lower left corner of the practice rink adjacent to the Iceberg Skating Palace. Much of the time, the feed showed a long, stationary wide shot. When the big names took the ice—your Golds, your Abbotts, your Lipnitskayas—the network provided close-ups and tracking shots by remotely controlling the camera from its figure-skating production truck inside the Iceberg.

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Practice cam is, of course, designed to feed the limitless maw of the figure skating beast. “Digitally, we’ve seen over the years that the figure skating audience is hungry for extra, behind-the-scenes content,” says Dave Gabel, the coordinating producer for NBCOlympics.com. “So we jumped at the opportunity to add figure skating practice sessions to our digital coverage from Sochi.” And, yes, people watched. An NBC Sports spokesman says viewers have consumed more than 1.3 million minutes—21,666 hours—of practice cam. A series of short videos generated from practice footage have drawn more than 200,000 views.

Practice cam is voyeur cam, or candid cam, or surveillance cam: raw, secret, unscripted. A group of skaters share the ice. Is that Isadora Williams of Brazil? Viktoria Helgesson of Sweden? Natalia Popova (Ukraine) or Jelena Glebova (Estonia)? There are no chyrons and no narration, just the ambient sound in the rink; from this distance, only Dick Button in his prime could tell the non-famous skaters apart. They wear monochromatic spandexy sweat clothes: tight pants and one or two tank tops for the women (aren’t they chilly?), long sleeves for the men. They take turns skating to their music, which echoes tinnily in the empty building, a dim contrast to the orchestral pageantry that will engulf the Iceberg during competition. You have to guess whose music is playing. One skater sit-spins while another toe loops or Salchows. A third skates languidly to the boards to get instruction from her coach.

The Zamboni vrooms by.

The network spliced a few star-studded practices into short videos—of Americans Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, and Jeremy Abbott; South Korea’s Yuna Kim; Canada’s Patrick Chan; and a few others. (Sadly, NBC took down the raw feeds when the sessions ended.) Those were shot at ice level by actual human NBC camera operators. Kim does a triple something. She removes her black gloves and hands them to a coach. My hands get hot when I skate too! Kim pushes her palms upward after a jump; is she unsatisfied with her lift? Wagner, in black Nike short-shorts and leg warmers, skates to Pink Floyd; another skater in pink zips in front of the camera.

In black pants and a black tank with what looks like fluorescent green piping, or maybe it’s a second tank, Gold looks like she’s going to a yoga class. She lands a jump and one person applauds. She stops, adjusts, starts again with the music. She lands another jump and one person applauds. Gold practices bowing and waving to all four sides of the empty arena. She skates to her coach, Frank Carroll, dons a USA warm-up jacket, and departs the ice. “Patrick Chan lands a quad in practice,” one of the videos is headlined. It needs a subheadline: “But first he falls on his ass.”

Whether in edited close-ups or live, unpackaged long views, practice cam was a peephole into the most highly choreographed, designed, and stylized Olympic sport. This is what figure skating is really like, people. No spectators, no makeup, no spangles. No Scott Hamilton or Sandra Bezic laying it on thicker than a block of ice. Rink workers in garish Sochi jackets ogling the skaters. Water bottles standing like toy soldiers atop the boards. When I clicked on practice cam just after midnight today, the feed showed a vacant rink, like a video yule log for the Games, skaters yet to arrive.

Training for the Olympics is a grind. It’s unglamorous, repetitive, mind-numbing, banal. Practice cam let us appreciate what the athletes endure: the stopping and starting, the talking and listening, the doing it over and over and over. It was indisputably dull, and refreshingly real.