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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why the Olympics Bug Me

Medal Count

I see that the Olympics beat American Idol in viewership the other night: Why? Because three Americans won gold in that broadcast. I am as ready to root as the next guy — last night to my surprise I found my heart pounding during the final of the men’s figure skating Though I found Lysacek’s skate full of effort, thought, skill — and nothing close to artistry. He had carefully studied what was required to win — congratulations, that is what a competition is — but there was no thrill in watching him, other than the medal count. In fact the only performance that was an artistic statement — that transcended the need to pile up points to actually tell a story, to narrate a set of emotions, was Johnny’s Weir’s — which did not impress the judges 
        Why am I going on this tangent about figure skating? Every broadcast begins and ends, and returns to Medal Count — How Many Medals Does the US Have? It is all a big contest to rack up metal — just like the men in the figure skating final, who calculated when to make their jumps to get maximum point value. It is as if we were back in the Cold War — where the Olympics was some kind of statement about the Free World versus the Communist Enemy. Clearly the TV audience likes that — and, as I said, I can get caught up in that same nationalist fever. But that is the exact opposite of the Olympics.
         Why should every broadcast be about Americans — or even winners? What about selecting the most beautiful run of each day? The most interesting — not the most interesting back story about someone at home or their dog and family — but treating the event as a showcase of the Best in the World — treating viewers to excellence from wherever, by whomever — a chance to see all of the skill, and training, and daring, and artistry of all of the peoples of the world? That’s the Olympics — a testament to what human beings can do. I realize that kind of broadcast would not be as popular, and TV needs to pay its bills. But I also feel battered by the nationalist drum breat and wish for just a brief while we could watch the world, appreciate the world, and forget about ourselves. Isn’t that the model we want to present to kids — being wide eyed and curious world citizens? The Olympics should be a window, not a mirror.


  1. Nancy Werlin says:

    Mark, meet Melissa Wyatt. Melissa, meet Mark Aronson:

  2. Tanya Lee Stone says:

    This was why watching the snowboarders was such sheer pleasure–whether they fell and ruined their medal chances or had the best run of their life, each boarder was having the time of their life. It was joyous, thrilling–they were smiling even when down! Watching the community spirit and attention to being in the moment of the snowboard athletes made this Olympics satisfying for me, when I am normally distracted by how disappointing it is that someone who has just achieved Bronze–third in the world!–could be disappointed.

  3. thanks Nancy, Melissa recalled the old ABC broadcats — remember their weekend (Saturday?) sports show was ABC’s Wide World of Sports — now we have a much narrower view

  4. Lighten up people. Is it a crime to be patriotic now? Personally, I found Evan’s ice skating performance very beautiful, and Johnny’s not so much. It’s all subjective, your opinion about beauty is not fact, it is opinion. Some of us like watching as much sport as possible, without the back story, so sue us. The point is that we all like different things and that is OK. why should the sports channel cater to your idea of what the Olympics should be more than anyone else’s?

  5. Sure we can disagree about the skating — though even the announcers stressed Weir’s artistry and Evan’s diligence. As to the Olympics — I want Americans to do well and I like to see us lead in the medal count. But the Olympics is not America v. the World, it is the whole world coming together to feature excellence in athletics. I am not against rooting for America to do the best, but the broadcast is out of whack, out of balance — all it does is root and that is the opposite of letting people choose their own response, it is the insistent drumbeat of one very limited angle of vision.

  6. Melissa Wyatt says:

    Bless you. I think we may be the only two people in the US who were not swooning over Lysacek’s so-called artistry. He is a fine skater, but very far from the greatest stylist the sport has ever seen. But the analysts had to over-simplify the situation to better build a rivalry and manipulate the audience.

    The coverage of the men’s figure skating event is a great example of NBC’s stomach churning nationalism. Sandra Bezic accuses the Russian of front-loading his routine, but he does only one less jump after the halfway point than Lysacek. And she complains that Plushenko leaves a whole minute at the end of his program with no jumps, when Lysacek did exactly the same!

    And all the way up to the free program, all the US analysts did was whine about how it was going to come down to the quad, meaning the non-quad American skater would lose and how that was so unfair. And then what do you know? It didn’t come down to the quad after all. But the Russian complains about it and that’s all over the coverage today, what a lousy sport he is to voice his opinion.

    Then this morning, what does Scott Hamilton say? That Plushenko is right and the quad is absolutely the future of the sport. Now that the US safely has the gold medal, that is. It wears on you after awhile.

  7. I’m not sure it’s the Olympics so much as the Olympic coverage we get here in the US. I totally agree about that — the medal counts, the emphasis on gold, all of that. I wonder how it is covered by other countries. When traveling I enjoy watching CNN International, much more than I like “regular” CNN. I remember an interview with the women gymnasts in Beijing, where the announcers kept trying to play up the rivalry with the Chinese team and how they might be underage (remember all that?) All the young women would say was how exciting it was and how good it was to have real competition. For them, it was really about the love of the sport, not the medal, despite the media coverage. Watching with my children we make it an opportunity for critical thinking about presentation and advertising. I wonder how long it has been this way, as I have memories of watching the Olympics as a child, but I don’t recall such partisanship. So I wonder what children today do take away from their viewing?

  8. we have a house guest from the Czech Republic, he was just baffled watching the games — he wondered if there was some station he could go to that was about the Olympics, not just America. The weird part is that in the Cold War days medal count nationalism was rampant on both sides — the East Germans used drugs to boost their medal counts, the Russians used the games as an advertisement for the glories of Communism — and we were determined to win for the Free World. There is still some of that competition between rising China and the US, but now our relentless nationalism goes on without a matching adversary. In fact the Cold War promoted a kind of internationalism — a sort of We Are the World, can’t we understand each other as people so we don’t blow each other up tone — while today there is less desperate need to feel a sense of global citizenship, so we just wave our flag.