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Sport for Sport's Sake

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NBC promoted its coverage of the summer Olympics in Athens as a grand experiment. For the first time it would put all 28 Olympic sports out there for the U.S. television audience that claimed to want them all. The message, in effect, was "If you air it they will come," though "Put up or shut up" was implied as well. Using its cable siblings in addition to its broadcast network affiliates, NBC squeezed 1,210 hours of coverage on seven channels into the 17 days from opening ceremony to closing ceremony. Yet I don't believe even NBC was prepared for how revolutionary its coverage turned out to be. Yes, many of the same old faults persisted, foremost among them the airing of marquee events on tape for the wider prime-time audience, with many sliced and diced to build maximum drama. (As with figure skating in the winter games, the major gymnastics competitions typically didn't conclude until NBC was about to sign off, which was at 11 PM locally.) But complaints against this entrenched practice deserve to be filed under the Robinson Jeffers heading "Be angry at the sun for setting if these things anger you."

A few factors--mostly economic--dictated other, more subtle changes in the coverage. Addressing complaints about its contrived coverage of the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City and the 2000 summer games in Sydney, NBC scaled back the prefabricated up-close-and-personal profiles--a cut that no doubt improved its bottom line in the form of fewer reporters, camera operators, and editors working on those pieces. This, in turn, deprived U.S. viewers of the background information necessary to form a rooting interest in more exotic events. There were very few of the usual stories of, say, an Ethiopian police officer running 15 miles to work across a barren landscape to build his stamina, or a Siberian wrestler dedicating his medal to a family member lost in a blizzard. What U.S. viewers quite often saw was pure sport, pure athleticism, streaming across the screen with precious little context. It was sport for sport's sake.

For years the major TV networks have been in the business of creating stars and heroes to promote the sports they've spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying the rights to broadcast. NBC and ABC have been quite open about using Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and, now, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan to market the National Basketball Association. The other networks have followed suit in other sports: Fox championing the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998, all the networks pushing the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre as the face and soul of the National Football League. The burgeoning BALCO scandal cut the legs out from under U.S. track and field before the Athens games, so the American athlete who was hyped as the emblem of the games came to be 19-year-old swimmer Michael Phelps. His attempt to top Mark Spitz's seven gold medals won in Munich in 1972 quickly failed when he had to settle for bronze in two of the first three events he swam in. But when the hype was stripped away a tremendous athlete and sportsman was revealed. First, Phelps made no apology about finishing third to Australia's Ian Thorpe and defending gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in the 200-meter freestyle, saying he'd simply wanted to swim against the best. (Thorpe, by contrast, declined to compete in Phelps's best events.) Then Phelps just plain won everything else in sight. With his fearsome dark goggles and lantern jaw popping up again and again in the butterfly, he looked like the fierce figurehead on a Viking ship surging across the water. Yet he ceded his spot on the last relay to Ian Crocker, a swimmer with something to prove after his abysmal opening leg on the first major relay relegated Phelps to his first bronze. With Phelps leading the cheering section, Crocker helped the U.S. team post a world record. And Phelps, who got credit for that final relay win by swimming one of the qualifying heats, came home with six golds.

To be sure, in presenting "the complete Olympics," NBC could do only so much to embellish some sports. Yes, it was good to see the horses get their once-every-four-years place in the sun during dressage, but I'm sure I wasn't alone in deciding that some sports I'd never watch in a million years didn't suddenly become essential by being part of the Olympics. Cyclists circled indoor tracks, badminton players smashed away, and Ping-Pong players seemed to pull serves out of their pants pockets, but I was determined to leave those to NBC's imagined legions of cycling, badminton, and Ping-Pong aficionados. Worst of all was team handball, an ungainly mutant hybrid somewhere between soccer and basketball--enjoyable to play, I'm sure, but a nightmare of a spectator sport. My personal favorite, beach volleyball (of which I'll say no more, the better to grease the way for a nonconfrontational editing of this piece, though look for me at North Avenue Beach this weekend), didn't begin to atone for the damage other sports had done to my finer sensibilities.

For me, diving became the sport that epitomized the Athens Olympics. Not a single U.S. diver earned a medal in these games, so there was no national rooting interest. I don't recall seeing a single profile of any of the divers, not even Wang Feng, the Chinese favorite with the Gil Thorp haircut and washboard abs, until a piece on Canada's Alexandre Despatie turned up during the last night of competition. Yet I could never turn away. Man or woman, platform or springboard, athlete followed athlete in a flow of beautiful bodies in beautiful motion--the essence of sport, it seems to me--as the perceptive NBC analyst Cynthia Potter carefully dissected the pros and cons of each in that charming, honey-lemon southern accent of hers. Not coincidentally, diving was also where NBC's technical coverage excelled. Stop-motion multiple-exposure images enhanced Potter's analysis--sometimes comparing divers by superimposing one dive on another--and a plumb-bob camera followed the divers from the platform down under the water.

If diving's prestige was enhanced in Athens, gymnastics was the sport that suffered most, coming off as the summer games' equivalent to figure skating in the last winter Olympics. (The jingoistic analysis by Al Trautwig and Tim Daggett only made things worse.) First, U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm won the overall competition on a scoring snafu in which South Korea's Yang Tae Young wasn't given proper credit for the difficulty of his routine on the parallel bars; later, the crowd at the final event booed and whistled vociferously over the low score given a Russian gymnast's daring, pyrotechnic routine on the high bar. (One would have thought the crowd had just sat through the debut of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.) It only made things worse when a judge reacted by minimally adjusting his score upward. Hamm was placed in an awkward position both times, and didn't exactly distinguish himself by stating--in that nasal, mewling, midwestern voice of his--that he had no intention of sharing his gold medal. Come on, you won on an accounting error after all but tumbling under the scorers' table in the vault. At least show some gracious humility.

But gymnastics was the exception, the old Olympics told the old-school way. For the most part, the competition on TV created moments that were notable not for national pride or sentimental hooey but in and of themselves. Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, considered the greatest miler of his era, came back from falling in 1996 and getting nipped at the wire in 2000 to win the 1,500-meter race, and it was telling how all the other runners stopped by to pay him homage after he collapsed on the track in elation. Then he came back and, helped by a slow pace, won the 5,000 meters as well, becoming the first runner since Paavo Nurmi, the famous "Flying Finn" in Paris 80 years ago, to pull off that Olympic double. Sweden's Stefan Holm won the high jump with a leap in which he seemed to slither over the bar without his center of gravity ever passing above it. Gary Hall Jr. held on to the title of world's fastest swimmer by winning the 50 meters with all the cocky moxie of a drag racer past his prime. After Stacy Dragila failed to make the finals in the women's pole vault, NBC all but ignored the competition--a pity, in that it was won by Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, one of the most beautiful and graceful athletes in the games. On the men's side, U.S. vaulters finished one-two, with Tim Mack winning on his last jump to beat Toby "Crash" Stevenson, who would be a certain Mountain Dew spokesman if he hadn't promised his mom to always wear a helmet in competition. U.S. sprinters Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford seemed to be doing a skit from the TV program Method & Red, waving each other across the finish line in a 100-meter heat, but then they delivered--Gatlin claiming the title of world's fastest man in the final and Crawford leading a U.S. medal sweep in the 200-meter dash. It wasn't all triumphs, either. British marathoner Paula Radcliffe collapsed in tears on the side of the road when she gave out over the final rises of the demanding Athens course. University of Illinois hurdler Perdita Felicien, racing for Canada as the favorite in the finals, crashed on the first hurdle, proving you can take the athlete out of Illinois but you can't take the Illini out of the athlete. In the process, she took out Russia's Irina Shevchenko as well: four years' effort down the drain.

Then, of course, there were the teams. Displaying how decadent the NBA has become for all the world to see, the U.S. men's basketball team--derided as "the so-called Dream Team" by NBC host Bob Costas--suffered a series of humiliating losses and settled for bronze. The U.S. women, however, upheld national honor, as did the U.S. women's softball team, which shut out the competition from start to finish before surrendering a meaningless run in the gold-medal game. Then there was the U.S. women's soccer team. Led by their own version of the Fab Five--Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett, who'd pretty much built the sport out of nothing in the United States over the last decade-plus and were competing together for the last time--but driven by younger players like Abby Wambach, who threw herself all over the field in the finals against Brazil before scoring the game-winning goal in overtime on a reckless header off a Lilly corner kick, the U.S. women played gritty team soccer. They won both the semifinal and the final games in overtime, with Brazil peppering Briana Scurry in goal and hitting the post at least twice before falling. Hamm was picked by her U.S. Olympic teammates to carry the flag in Sunday's closing ceremony, after which she said she was heading to Chicago to join her husband, the Cubs' newly acquired Nomar Garciaparra. Look for her in the near future to bring several of her teammates with her to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh-inning stretch. They can't do the song any more raggedy justice than they did the national anthem as they sang it during their medal ceremony in Athens.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP--Mark Humphrey, Diether Endlicher.

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