During NBC’s broadcast of last Saturday’s USA Track and Field Championships from Des Moines, just before the gun to start the mens’ 400 meter final, the screen fills with each participant, lanes two to eight. Ato Boldon, who does color commentary, offers each athlete’s resume, and, in lane five, he introduces Tony McQuay, former Florida Gator, silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 400, and one of the race favorites.
McQuay finishes second. I was there.
In fact, if you pause your DVR at just the right moment and scour the spectators in the second row (just to the right of McQuay’s left ear) you’ll see my daughter leaning toward me. I’m wearing a Columbia blue cap—nearly white in the glare—and sunglasses.
I remember exactly what she said… “We’re probably on television right now.”
We watched the runners’ backs, and two pairs of cameramen and cord handlers played leapfrog as they rushed past the runner on screen to the runner next to appear. One pair had odd lanes, the other even. They deftly reached their spot and froze, listening through earbuds to commentary we couldn’t hear, gathering and playing out cord as needed. Just before the runners took their blocks, they scurried into the narrow alley between track and stadium wall, dragging line behind them. One dropped his camera on a tripod to capture the opening strides.
Perhaps you anticipate where I’m headed. As much as I enjoyed being at the championship (the tickets were a birthday gift from my daughter), I sometimes felt we real spectators were secondary.
I remember the cameramen well not only because I saw them more clearly than the runners but also because everyone seemed hyperaware of them. The crowd booed if the cameras intruded by lingering overlong, and, the day before, fans yelled at one of the cord handlers when he left a loop on the track as the athlete ran up in that lane. Though he yanked it out, it seemed a close call.
In track—as in many sports, I suspect—TV coverage beats being there. Being there, you feel the tension and anticipation of the big moment. You see the subtle expressions of athletes’ off-camera demeanors. The excitement of the crowd and athletes is viral. However, most races are blurs. With the limitations of the human eye to discern depth and distance, it’s tough to tell what’s happening on the far side. You can’t even tell who’s leading down the home stretch because you only have one angle.
You also wonder what television sees and you miss. When cameras eye their own monitors they discover tunnels of frames, a narrowing hall into infinity. Similarly, at a “live sporting event”—an odd label in itself—you fall prey to postmodern disassociation. It’s all about watching. And as I watched, I felt myself watching. If I’d had a portable TV, I might have seen myself and waved at myself waving.
The first time I went to one of my older brother’s high school meets under lights, I could hardly wait to go down onto the track and sprint between its lines. The moment, and place, seemed charged with glory. In Des Moines, some of the same urgency beset me, but usually during un-broadcast junior finals or deep prelim flights. Otherwise, I was strangely confused. Why were we there? Were we actors in the broadcast? My living room is certainly cooler and my favorite chair more comfortable than a bleacher bench. The food is better at home.
I thought about Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, when he describes his main character, Chance, on a television talk show set:
The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered around the world—into rooms, cars, boats, planes, living rooms, and bedrooms. He would be seen by more people than he could ever meet in his entire life—people who would never meet him. The people who watched him on their sets did not know who actually faced them; how could they, if they had never met him? Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of viewers’ eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.
Forget my 1.5 seconds of fame—no one watches track!—if I felt licked up and/or peeled what about those at the center of this contest? And why stop with this meet or this medium? What does it mean to become an image, to distill experience and serve it so neatly? What about the living event?
Soon people will begin asking whether I enjoyed myself, and I’ll answer, truthfully, “Yes.” Yet, part of me wonders what I experienced, how much was real at all.