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CBC/Radio-Canada's hosts for English-language coverage of Tokyo 2020 (left to right: Andrew Chang, Alexandre Despatie, Scott Russell, Andi Petrillo, Perdita Felicien and Heather Hiscox).

CBC

In primetime last Saturday night, the Tokyo Olympics finally sprang to life as a TV event.

It was a blistering couple of hours. Then it became a thrilling couple of days. First on Saturday, Tunisia’s 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui pulled off the swimming shock of the day, winning gold in the men’s 400-metre freestyle. Who the heck is this guy?

Then came Penny Oleksiak pulling the 4x100-metre relay team to a silver medal. There is now an aura around Oleksiak that transcends this event, and you get the feeling you are honoured to watch her. The gravitational pull of her prominence is strong and yet, you know, you just know, the others on that team deserve more than being in her shadow. On Sunday, Maggie Mac Neil asserted herself into the spotlight to win Canada’s first gold medal of these Games. Great. But your best bet for finding out more about the athletes is consulting a newspaper or magazine.

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You don’t expect much nuance in TV coverage of the Olympics, and you certainly don’t get it. And this time around, CBC’s coverage seems particularly ragged. So far, watching the Olympics on CBC’s platforms is like standing on a traffic island in a big city at rush hour; you are surrounded by a blaring cacophony of noise, most of it commercial noise selling you stuff off the back of athletes. It’s one tech company after another, followed by big banks and grocery store chains telling you they care about the athletes and they care about you. None of this is actually true.

What’s true is the frustration that seethes with many Canadians. It is unclear where to find coverage of specific events. It is unclear what is live and what’s recorded. Try the CBC Olympics app or, heaven help us, CBC Gem (an outlet that might be more accurately named “This Content is Temporarily Unavailable”), and you are lost in a jarring pandemonium of ads erupting willy-nilly during events and cutting off the actual results. One imagines there are people who are already so sick of promos for CBC TV’s Diggstown that they have vowed to never, ever watch that thing.

The mainstream TV service has stuck to the basic mechanics of Olympics coverage. Scott Russell hosts and sometimes falters, but is forgiven because there are few broadcast jobs as tricky as this one. There are, however, too many former athletes surrounding him. Few have real insight and can only offer platitudes or describe their own specific experience. Some are so stiff they look as if they’ve been brought from Madame Tussauds wax museum. And some of the interviews with athletes who have lost and are devastated are cringe-inducing. Obviously, some of CBC’s team at these Games have more experience competing than in broadcasting, but it would be better if their inspiration for post-defeat conversations wasn’t the “After the final rose” segment on The Bachelorette.

That said, I highly recommend one of the rare jewels in CBC’s coverage – that is the RBC Spotlight (yes I have to mention the sponsor, otherwise you’d never find it), a digital-only show that streams on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. It features former speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, who has been doing under-the-radar work as host and analyst for CBC. In these Tokyo-based segments she’s a witty, spontaneous, self-deprecating and knowledgeable presence.

She’s there to have fun, or as much fun as can be had at this surreal event, but is serious, too. Her interview with defeated boxer Mandy Bujold was first rate and blessedly non-invasive. Check out Bucsis.

We don’t yet have a ratings report for CBC coverage, and when it comes, it’s bound to be confusing because online streaming can’t be measured as accurately as primetime TV viewing.

But the numbers are in for NBC’s coverage in the United States and they are best described as “lacklustre.” While NBC beat competing networks on Friday and Saturday, its Olympics coverage is down considerably in viewing numbers from Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The number of eyeballs attracted to streaming coverage will add to the overall numbers, but a decline in interest is obvious.

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These are unusual Games in unusual times. The only constant is viewer frustration. And the only solution is the distraction of more medals for Canada.

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