Too Much Me-itis At The Olympics

Susan Page
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Wednesday - March 10, 2010
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I was total “sofa starch” - aka couch potato - for two-plus weeks during the fantastic Winter Olympic Games. I even found myself doing analysis - but not of athletic prowess, heavens no! I’m not qualified in any way. It was the media interviews I found worthy of critique.

Like it or not, there is more to the Olympics these days than just competing on the slopes or ice. There’s a competition for hearts and minds.

Though awed at their perseverance and talent, I’m amazed that many of these top athletes haven’t figured out how to do a television interview without coming across as vain and ungrateful.

They have to know that a large screen, high-def television magnifies the slightest of expressions - physical and verbal - into Godzilla-sized statements. A smile, a grimace, the toss of a ski pole or a toss of the hair can be replayed endlessly. The camera zoom is an arrogant athlete’s worst enemy.

It’s not enough anymore to be great at the sport. The public, media and potential sponsors want more from their representative: a patriotic spirit, a team-player attitude, a good dose of humility, and to be thanked for their support.

During post-event interviews, when world champion alpine skier Lindsey Vonn said more than once into the camera, “I got what I came for, a gold medal, so I’m happy,” it came across the big screen as “me, me, yea me.” In fairness, she also talked about pulling for her teammates, but no grateful thanks to anyone who’s helped her get there or how it feels to represent her country.

Vonn’s remarks contrast those of men’s gold medal figure skater Evan Lysacek, who said after his win during the same broadcast, “All that comes to mind is thanking my family, my friends and my coach, who have sacrificed so much. I never let myself think about the gold medal for myself, but I thought about it for my coach. He’s so special. He deserves it so so much.”

Another highly hyped athlete, Shaun White, men’s snowboard half-pipe champ, also had “me-itis” on camera. Bob Costas asked Shaun how he manages to meet his sport’s high expectations. “It’s definitely hard to rise and deliver (flicking his signature curly red mane) what’s expected, and that’s been my greatest accomplishment ... to deliver when I’m counted on.” He’s likable, has a stellar smile, and is a phenom in his sport, but the better part of an 11-minute interview was spent regaling his own greatness. And his kibitzing and waving at friends during the national anthem didn’t serve him well either.

In contrast, short track skater Apolo Ohno, now the all-time U.S. medal winner with eight (over three different games), while quite self-assured, has matured into an athlete who appreciates the magnitude of representing the U.S. in the Olympics. In interviews, he speaks of how great it feels to hear the Star Spangled Banner and see the flag raised, and he thanks his immigrant father for all the sacrifices he’s made for him.

Certainly, after America’s devastating overtime loss to team Canada in the gold medal game, team USA’s stupendous goalie, Ryan Miller, certainly could be forgiven for his sulky post-game interview, but he didn’t win hearts when he shrugged and said, “It’s just another hockey game ... I’ve got big game experience, and I got through it like it’s any other hockey tournament.”

American, Canadians, NBC, and the millions watching regarded that Olympic matchup as anything but “just another game.”

Of course, these super athletes don’t sweat and sacrifice from an early age, give up normal childhoods, stay in perpetual training and risk injury for me or you. Like most people, they do what they do for the thrill and for the rewards that come from being successful. And, for sure, Americans derive their own thrill from watching amazing feats in sports they couldn’t dream of doing.

Nevertheless, these athletes do need the support of their country, sponsors, television, and the long-term help and sacrifice of parents and coaches to reach their dreams.

Much more than a gold medal awaits them if they could simply learn to acknowledge that support when a microphone is in their face and cameras are rolling.

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