What Went Through Your Mind When You Asked That Question?
Last Sunday British cyclist Lizzie Armistead got the silver medal for road cycling, a 140km (87 mile) race where she was beaten by Marriane Vos of Holland (below) by a scant few seconds after a furious sprint past Buckingham Palace. Shortly after, an NBC announcer got her off to the side, her cycling helmet still strapped on. Microphone in her face, he asked (and I paraphrase here), "What went through your mind as you and Marriane broke from the pack and started battling for the finish?"
Um, a couple of possibilities spring to mind, I’m guessing. "Am I pulling a cart of cement, or are my legs failing?" Or, blood pumping, chest heaving, exhausted with the sound of her heart in her ears for three hours, maybe it was more like "I can't get this floor wax jingle out of my head … did I leave the iron on??"
Armistead smiled, and cheerfully blurted, "I can't remember!" She explained it was a blur, that competition was fierce with the best riders in the world, the rainy weather affected the race, and she was trying as hard as she possibly could.
She was polite and gracious. Happy to do it, apparently, even though the standard banality of the questions could have prompted her to decide otherwise.
Granted, sports interviews are tough. You know they were trying. You know they’re happy they won, immensely pained when they lost. There isn’t a lot more that we didn’t already learn from the announcers and color commentators during the event. What can the post-competition interviewers add that we don't already know?
Even more inane than "What went though your mind?" is "How did you feel?,” coming after a) you crushed your opponents' will like a quail egg, or b) all you saw was your rivals' backside as they crossed the finish line.
Athlete: "Well, Bob, if you must know, I wasn't thinking too much. The lack of oxygen from the physical exertion pretty much prevented any coherent thought. And with the lactic acid depletion, all I felt was a steady, throbbing pain."
Or maybe: "Um, I've just spent my life training for an obscure sport people see for 30 minutes every four years. I really can’t speak … I dare somebody right now to tell me it’s only a sport. I swear, I’ll gag them with this rubber swim cap."
We learn about these athletes in the up-close montages. About how they had to ride a mule in the dark to practice because, in that remote corner of the countryside where they humbly live, machinery has yet to be invented.
But bless the athletes, the vast majority of whom are pure of purpose. It’s the media, and the reporters, that are the trouble here. Can we engage these competitors at a level worthy of their accomplishment? Or, at least, ask questions that don't demand a dip into the bag of athletic cliches?
How did you get through all that training? Did you miss hanging out with your friends since you didn’t have a normal life? When was the last time you saw the inside of a Burger King?
Or, if we want to get a personal moment out of them, maybe just ask something innocuous, like: "Want to say hello to anyone back home?" That might get an authentic moment, which would be better television anyway, rather than set-up the standard rote responses, starting with “I’m just happy to have made the finals.”
It's not saying it’s easy for reporters — just that it’s worthwhile to attempt to get a genuine conversation going, or an unexpected slant that would make the exchange unique. If none of that is there, or even possible, then please, producers, skip it.
To make the Olympics fair and credible, they've banned all kinds of doping and drugs. I suggest, to make them more watchable as well as more fair, they ought to ban the boring and inane questions, too.
What are they thinking?
And how do they feel?