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The art of telling human interest stories at the Olympics




Simone Biles of the United States looks on during the Women's Individual All Around Final on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Rio Olympic Arena on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Simone Biles of the United States looks on during the Women's Individual All Around Final on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Rio Olympic Arena on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

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One common complaint about the Rio Olympics coverage is that there are too many human interest stories and not enough coverage of the competitions themselves. But for a worldwide audience that tunes in only once every four years, knowing the backstory for those seemingly super-human athletes — think Michael Phelps’ 22nd gold medal — may be as important as the games they play.

Documentary style profiles have been a fixture of the Olympics broadcast ever since ABC Sports President Roone Alredge took the reigns in the late 1960s. Below is an early human interest story from the 1968 games in Mexico City:

Video: Mexico City Olympics

And another from 1984. . . 

Video: 1984 Olympics

Jimmy Roberts has been a correspondent for the games, both at ABC Sports and now at NBC.  documenting athletes' struggles, determination and triumphs.

We reached Roberts in Rio where he is currently on his 16th Olympic assignment to find out more about what goes into the producing of these stories and what he makes of some viewers' frustrations with them.

You can hear the full interview by clicking the play button. Below are interview highlights.

Interview Highlights: 

ON THE LATE ABC SPORTS PRESIDENT ROONE ARLEDGE AND HIS VISION FOR "UP CLOSE & PERSONAL" PROFILES OF OLYMPIC ATHLETES:

It was [Arledge's] feeling that, in order to get people to care about the events, you had to introduce them to the athletes and give them an emotional stake in what they were watching, because a lot of these events are things that they wouldn't be familiar with.

ON THE CRITICISM THAT THERE ARE TOO MANY HUMAN INTEREST STORIES:

Look, you're not going to be able to satisfy everybody. And there are people who are hardcore competition junkies and all they want is meat and potatoes. And then there are a few people who want an appetizer. At the Olympic games I think there are a number of people — a sizable part of the audience — that doesn't necessarily know an awful lot about the events that they're watching. And this is helpful to them.

ON A RECENT STORY HE DID DOCUMENTING OLYMPIC ATHLETES WHO CAME TO THE GAMES AS REFUGEES: 

I am very proud that we got to do a story like that because it's important... there are 21.3 million refugees in the world, and that means the refugee team — and there were 10 of them — represent a constituency that's larger than 150 of the 200 nations competing here. That gives you some sense of the dimension of the problem... you're trying to reach people and make them understand that there are issues that are going on in the world that maybe we should all be aware of.

Refugee Olympic Team athletes for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games attend their welcome ceremony at the Athletes village on August 3, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Refugee Olympic Team athletes for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games attend their welcome ceremony at the Athletes village on August 3, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
David Ramos/Getty Images

ON ATHLETES WHO DON'T WANT THEIR STORIES TOLD:

I'm in the midst [of putting a story together] on a wrestler from the United States named Daniel Dennis. He wanted no part in talking to us. He couldn't be any nicer. But he's got what I think is a really interesting story... He suffered a loss — a historically horrible loss — in the final seconds of the NCAA championship, and was injured and eventually driven from the sport, lived in his truck, but a lot of it was just clearing his head. . . He was reluctant [to talk], but we chatted back and forth and he became a little less reluctant. And I hope I respected the boundaries of what he wanted to do. I would hope that somebody would do the same for me. 

How do you feel about broadcasters' coverage of Olympic backstories? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page

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