Nikki Hiltz exults as they cross the finish line at the US Olympic Track and Field trials. | Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

NBC announced last month that it would debut an artificial-intelligence-powered vocal doppelganger of famed broadcaster Al Michaels to narrate highlights as part of its Olympics coverage.

While that generated a lot of headlines for the network, the fact of the matter is that human interest stories are still going to drive the majority of its coverage of the Games and draw in plenty of viewers.

With transgender and nonbinary track star Nikki Hiltz qualifying for their first Olympics — one of at least 144 out LGBTQ athletes headed to Paris — NBC has got a major human interest story to tell.

It’s now on the network to do it right.

While the virtual Al 9000 drew a lot of media attention, NBC needs to invest even more time and resources into ensuring it tells Hiltz’s story with humanity and empathy. That means using their preferred they/them pronouns at all times.

Can NBC’s A.I. Al get Hiltz’s pronouns right itself? We’ll see.

NBC botched Alana Smith’s pronouns at Tokyo Olympics

After the network misgendered nonbinary skateboarder Alana Smith at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, this is their chance to show they’ve learned from their mistakes and are focused on doing better in their coverage of trans and nonbinary athletes going forward.

While Outsports devotes numerous stories to coverage of athletes like Hiltz, it’s fair to assume that many people who tune in to the Olympics are not accustomed to hearing a mainstream sports outlet focus on the story of an out trans and nonbinary athlete competing in their first Games.

Matching Hiltz’s story with a broadcaster who can cover them with the humanity they deserve could create a truly powerful and inspiring moment, particularly if they turn in the kind of performance that won them the 2023 National Championship and the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Hiltz celebrates qualifying for their first Olympics with partner and fellow runner Emma Gee.
Photo credit: Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

My Outsports colleague Karleigh Webb has been tracking Hiltz’s ascendance for years. She believes that covering them with care and understanding will also allow their courage and their performance on the track to grab the spotlight they deserve.

“Yes, Hiltz’s backstory, their journey, and their coming out is a compelling story,” Webb said. “But let’s make that the whole story. Since last year, they have moved forward to National Championships to being among the best in the world to being a threat in one of the most competitive events in track and field.”

If NBC does its job properly, every headline about Hiltz should be about their performance on the track or how their representation at the Games uplifts their communities.

For many viewers, Hiltz’s Olympic race will be their first exposure to a major media outlet presenting a transgender and nonbinary athlete’s coming out story in a sympathetic light. Using they/them pronouns will be vital.

It’s a job for a broadcaster with a strong sense of humanity. That should be the quality NBC emphasizes in its broadcasts, even if the “Do you believe in miracles guy, but make it Skynet” tech generates more buzz.

Furthermore, Hiltz recently quote tweeted a sample of the vitriol they’ve received since they qualified for the Olympics.

Understanding and explaining Nikki Hiltz’s trans nonbinary journey

“The other challenge for NBC will be not to get sucked into the noise of those who are willfully ignorant of Hiltz’s story and the issues surrounding trans people in sports,” Webb expounded, “Hiltz is open about who they are and where they stand and they are a source of pride for many, which means they will also be a target of the noisy minority who will try to paint one of our nation’s best in a negative light.” 

When NBC covered Smith during the Tokyo Games, the network made an effort to explain that Smith identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns. But in describing the action, the broadcast crew sometimes reflexively used pronouns that misgendered them, even though Smith had gone so far as to write “they/them” on their skateboard.

By doing this, NBC’s misgendering became a headline and took some of the spotlight away from Smith’s performance.

Using Hiltz’s race as an opportunity to show that NBC is committed to doing better by marginalized communities would go a long way toward adding an even greater sense of goodwill to their telecasts.

The humanity inherent in Hiltz’s story is why millions of people watch the Olympics. NBC should concentrate on covering them properly and with respect—and that means finding announcers who understand the importance of getting their pronouns right.