Tuning Out The Olympics Hype

Susan Page
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Wednesday - March 08, 2006
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“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” - The
Olympic Creed

Though the Torino Winter Games are long gone, they provided insights that will hang around like Apolo Ohno’s gold.

Despite some events - luge, curling and skeleton - seeming to belong in a CSI script, we can still learn so much from them and the other competitions. Lessons about the human spirit, our times, the “struggle” and even politics.

For my generation, the Olympics were identified with television’s coming of age. They were to become a golden thread connecting the times of our lives in four-year increments. I was 8 when we got our first TV: a small “black-and-white” with a “rabbit ears” antenna. Through that small portal, our family from an isolated Texas ranch town traveled to awesome destinations, skiing the slopes of the Italian Alps and California’s Sierra Nevadas.

We held our breaths during Cortina, Italy’s 1956 games, as American figure skater (and polio victim) Tenley Albright fell in practice, slashing her ankle, tearing a vein and scraping bone. We prayed as her surgeon father flew in to operate in time for her to compete and become the first American woman to win a figure skating gold medal.

And, on our new color Zenith console, we watched skater Peggy Fleming win the U.S’s only Olympic gold medal on the podium in Grenoble, France. The Games provided our parents a podium from which to teach us golden lessons - even educate on world politics.

Until the mid-1980s fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was fought on hockey rinks, bobsled runs and on figure skates. The Soviet Union - ever the expert propagandist - used Olympic medal wins to show off communism as a superior system. It’s athletes were hand-picked, financially supported, and groomed from early childhood. The art of concocting and administering performance-enhancing drugs was honed in state-run labs in Moscow and East Berlin. Abiding by the Olympic spirit and the “amateur only” rules, The U.S. struggled against opponents whose motives were sinister, methods illegal. In today’s vernacular, we pretty much sucked at winning medals back then. But our integrity made our few wins more meaningful. Still today, integrity counted as the 2006 Austrian ski team was charged with “doping.”

It’s not surprising that NBC’s just-published ratings numbers were low. Warm-clime Americans, like us in Hawaii, find it hard to relate to “luging” through an icy tunnel, plus NBC had to overcome a ton of viewer distractions.

Remember, in 1960, we only had NBC, CBS and ABC. Today, viewers have so many choices. If you love American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, 24 or Lost and don’t have a DVR or Tivo, what to do? Watch preliminary bobsledding heats or Jack Bower try to dis-mantle terrorist-planted nerve gas canisters before they kill 100,000 Americans? Hmmm.

Sadly, desperate to score higher ratings, sensationalism replaced sense as NBC’s Olympic coverage often deteriorated into “hype and blame” (the same as in newscasts), leaving out much that was positive. It drove me bonkers that the “molehill” spat between our two speed skaters that was hyped into an “Alps-sized” feud overshadowed their medal wins; that reluctant ski hero Bode Miller was harshly blamed for failing to measure up to the relentless, manufactured hype; and that the falls by snowboard cross silver medal-ist Lindsey Jacobellis, Alpine skier Lindsey Kildow and Michelle Kwan (in practice before her withdrawal) were way over-aired.

NBC hosts whined and opined more about our team’s failure than its success, which is ironic. The U.S., with 25 medals (second to Germany’s 29, and second only to Salt Lake Games 34), outmedaled countries whose whole world is winter sports. Remember 1968, when Peggy Flemming won America’s lone gold medal?

Perhaps American Idol won the ratings gold over NBC’s games telecast because it’s show is more in keeping with the Olympic Creed - except, of course, for Simon Cowell, who, as it turns out, would fit in well with the grumpy NBC critics of our Olympic idols.

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