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Hidden Heroes

The commercialization of the Olympics isn't just annoying anymore--it's obscuring the actual drama.

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The Olympic Games, weighed down and distorted by corporate sponsorships and television rights fees, offer a cautionary tale for other sports. Yes, commercialism and professionalism have opened up the Olympics to athletes who never would have been able to compete back when Avery Brundage was using amateurism to exclude all but the elite from the Games. But what a cost. Nowadays skiers at the bottom of whatever hill they've just raced down can't get their skis off quick enough to hold them up alongside their faces so their sponsor's logo can be seen. It's almost enough to make one pine for the days of ascots, emblazoned blazers, and noblesse oblige.

NBC has shelled out so many billions for its long-term deal that to maximize its audience and advertising rates--and thereby recoup its investment--it tapes the marquee events for broadcast in prime time even though the difference between here and Turin is just seven hours. TV dictates the terms for most major sports these days, and corporate sponsorship is an aggravation almost everywhere--take, for instance, the official name of White Sox Park. But NBC is destroying the very thing it's trying to exploit.

In the current dog-eat-dog media environment the competition doesn't feel obliged to let NBC keep the results secret until it decides to air the events, though admittedly NBC is offering real-time results on its Web page. I first heard that Lindsey Jacobellis had hotdogged her way from gold to silver in the women's snowboard cross at 8:30 AM on the local CBS Radio station. You would have thought NBC would at least lead with it when the main coverage started that night. But host Bob Costas and the rest of the NBC reporters pretended the race hadn't happened until it finally aired around 10 PM. No wonder the Olympics got trounced in the Nielsen ratings by Fox's even more contrived and reprehensible American Idol.

As everybody knows by now, Jacobellis was coasting to victory, yards ahead of her nearest competitor, when she reached down, grabbed her snowboard, twisted it sideways, and did a little finger-pointing. She crashed, and Switzerland's Tanja Frieden flew past her. Afterward Frieden was swarmed by friends, family, and teammates, while--in the most poignant TV shot of the Games--Jacobellis stood stunned and alone. There's a reason fuddy-duddies say it's not polite to hotdog. If the shameful sportsmanship of rubbing one's achievement in an opponent's face isn't reason enough, self-interest ought to be. Let that be a lesson to all the gnarly snowboarders the Olympics and NBC have welcomed into the Games in an attempt to widen their appeal to the young-adult demographic.

When NBC wasn't working overtime to create media heroes out of snowboarders like Shaun White, the redheaded half-pipe gold medalist known as the "Flying Tomato," it was hyping U.S. athletes who turned out to be busts, like skier Bode Miller and the guys on the men's hockey team. (NBC recently signed a deal with the National Hockey League and turned Olympic hockey into a cross-promotional device.) It was trying to create stars to draw in viewers instead of allowing the Games to produce them.

One of the unwilling victims of that star-making machinery was Chicago's own Shani Davis, a speedskater from the south side discovered at the late, lamented Rainbo Roller Rink on North Clark. Davis was ballyhooed as the great black hope, potentially the first black--African, American, or otherwise--to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Games, then criticized when he declined to take part in a team event. Never mind that the person who took the most offense was his teammate Chad Hedrick and that he took offense because the team's poor performance without Davis deprived him of a chance to win five gold medals and tie Eric Heiden's 1980 total. (And never mind that Hedrick couldn't carry Heiden's skate guards, much less his jockstrap.) Labeled both a racial pioneer and a national disgrace, Davis responded by refusing NBC's prerace interview requests and by winning the 1,000-meter race with a graceful, precise, efficient skating style that was a thing of beauty. Immediately after his victory--he was the first of five skaters to top the time set by Hedrick--Davis verbally stiff-armed NBC reporter Melissa Stark, giving her a bunch of inexpressive answers, but at the end he flashed a glowing smile for the camera. Even a skilled media pro like Kanye West couldn't have done it any better. Davis went on to claim silver to Hedrick's bronze in the 1,500-meter race--an Italian took the gold--and that was all Davis could do to silence Hedrick and the critics, since it was his last race.

Another moment that cut through the crap came during the biathlon, the Great War-era athletic competition that mixes cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. When I sat down in front of the TV last Saturday afternoon NBC was broadcasting the 12.5-kilometer race, and I immediately thought I couldn't find anything more boring on the tube if I tried--not even NASCAR time trials. Yet within minutes I was caught up. The "king of biathlon," Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, was having an off shooting day. Each missed shot required a spin around a short penalty ring, so he kept falling behind, even though he made up the time when he got back on the course. France's Vincent Defrasne, who couldn't miss at the rifle range, looked primed for an upset.

Yet Bjoerndalen managed to close in on Defrasne just before the final shooting session. Under pressure, Defrasne missed twice, resulting in two penalty-loop laps. Bjoerndalen missed one of the five, and by the time he'd paid the price he was again trailing Defrasne. But then he closed in on and passed him. Defrasne's last hope was to beat Bjoerndalen in a sprint down the final straightaway, so he stayed right on the back of Bjoerndalen's skis. When they went up a final rise Defrasne stumbled making the hairpin turn at the top. Bjoerndalen seemed to have victory in hand, but Defrasne regained his balance, caught his rival, then passed him at the finish to win the gold. I had so much admiration for both of them that I was reminded of why I was watching the Olympics in the first place: not to see media stars perform for their sponsors, but to discover unlikely heroes. Too bad the event didn't air in prime time.

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