Sports Nut

More Sob Sister Olympics 

I seem to have struck a nerve earlier this week with my request that you e-mail Slate your favorite (if that’s the right word) example of NBC’s sob sister Olympics coverage. Our intention was to use the results to tease NBC, but it turns out that after two weeks of Olympic coverage, you’re not in a teasing mood. You’re positively outraged. Hey, NBC, wanna know why your ratings are in the tank? Because people who tune in to a two-week sporting event want to watch the actual sports rather than a two-week soap opera masquerading as a sporting event.

“I was looking at the women’s marathon,” writes Slate reader Paul Kinkel. “At a moment that Frank Shorter identified as potentially crucial—a point where a pack of 20 might well splinter into contenders and stragglers, they broke into a story about one of the Kenyan ladies. When they went back to the race, the pack was in fact splintered, there were new leaders, and the subject of the piece was beginning to limp. A key moment missed. This was not a Heidi Bowl where we missed real action, but they used an Uplifting Moment to botch a taped recap.”

“I was watching the cycling today after school, and I was deeply saddened that they cut into the sport to show us and tell us the warm, time-consuming, not needed BS about the USA team,” adds 16-year-old Stearns La Seur. “I think they should show the athlete’s stats like they do in football and baseball.”

“I just can’t take any more of [the athlete bios NBC is doing],” chimes in Audrey Walsh. “Would rather watch reruns of a PBS telethon for 2 weeks!!!!”

General Complaint No. 1:The general inanity of the sideline reporters. Readers’ outrage was especially aimed at the swimming reporters, who questioned everybody about their drug use except the Americans. “The coverage reached an all-time low with the interview of Inge de Bruijn after she won her third gold medal,” writes Michael Deeds. “The reporter … repeatedly questions Ms. De Bruijn about using drugs to enhance her performance, although there was (and is, to my knowledge) absolutely no evidence to support these allegations. … The reporter apparently believed that Ms. De Bruijn’s rapid improvement in performance was sufficient unto itself to attempt to humiliate Ms. De Bruijn right after her third gold medal performance. Using this standard, why wasn’t Misty Hyman similarly questioned after she won her gold medal since she too had made a dramatic overnight improvement?”

General Complaint No. 2:Consistent fawning over the wrong people. “NBC, with nothing better to bore us with, decides to show us, not once, not twice, but three times the story of Eric Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinean swimmer who braved so much by jumping in the dang pool and swimming [100] meters in two minutes” (Steven A. Brown). “The worst of the worst has got to be the gymnastics commentators’ never-ending fawning over their favorite competitor, Svetlana Khorkina. … Their constant sobbing about ‘what might have been’ every time she fell off an apparatus made it even more intolerable” (Michael Todd). “Jenny Thompson—Poor thing, only 12 medals. How does she go on?” (Ann Mary Quarandillo). “The lowest point so far was the in-depth profile of the Australian miner who donated most of the gold for the medals. … Am I supposed to care?” (Parchman1). “How about the profile of diver Greg Louganis … the drama of his head injury and his personal angst over whether or not to disclose that he was HIV positive. … Excuse me but is he competing in Sydney?” (Andrea Straus)

General Complaint No. 3:The jingoism. “As a Canadian living in Kansas, I’m shocked to discover that nations other than the USA actually compete and even WIN Olympic events! … Biggest jerk of the games is the color guy during the USA-Korea Woman’s Volleyball (don’t block, don’t block!!). Hey, if you want to coach, get on the bench—let the game tell the story.” Another viewer, Marcy Chong, sent Sports Nut a lengthy letter she had written to NBC complaining about the one-sidedness of the dual profiles of Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin (his wrestling grimace “frozen in a way to make him look inhuman and monstrous”) vs. Wyoming’s own Rulon Gardner (“The opening shots include him holding a small girl, petting a cow, etc. etc.”) “It was,” Chong concludes, “as pathetic and shameful a piece of Cold War-era propaganda as ever was manufactured. … It was disgraceful.”

General Complaint No. 4:Sob Sisterism, of course. The tear-jerker stories fall into two categories: Those that are so silly you can’t believe they are saying it on the air, and those that really do have some element of tragedy but are being used to wring every last bit of pathos out of the event. Examples of the former include the “hardship” that befell Alonzo Mourning, who had to leave the basketball competition for the birth of his child and then race right back again for the next game, and this one, sent in by Dilan Esper: “During a beach volleyball game last week, [CNBC] asserted that Holly McPeak of the U.S. was having a tough time out there because her finger was taped up after she accidentally cut herself while slicing an English muffin.”

The “real” tragedies, on the other hand, just tend to grate. They grate partly because every one of us—even non-athletes—suffer personal tragedies, so using them to show athletic courage seems pretty ridiculous. But they also grate because there has not been a single competition that Sports Nut can think of where the network hasn’t used tragedy or disease as the touchstone of its coverage. “Apparently,” writes Deborah Robinson, “it is a résumé builder if you are an Eastern European woman gymnast if your father is already dead, or you never knew him in the first place.” Or he’s unemployed: “During the women’s individual gymnastics,” complains W. Chan, “the fact that BOTH of the parents of one of the Ukrainian gymnasts were unemployed was trumpeted as a reason for rooting just a bit for [her].” “The worst I’ve seen so far had to do with the softball team,” writes Joel Jacobsen. “There was this long story about this young woman who discovered she had cancer but all she wanted to do was play softball. … And now she was in Sydney … as an honorary batgirl for a single game. She wasn’t a player on the team. She wasn’t even a regular batgirl. She was apparently a recreational or high school player, with no connection to the actual Olympic team. But it was an affecting story about medical suffering.”  

Finally, Lori Wright had a great idea for a future Olympics: An office pool to predict which athlete’s personal tragedy will be showcased by the NBC sob sisters: “Will it be a car accident, sports injury, substance abuse problem, money problems?” Wright asks.

Count Sports Nut in! We’ll have it organized in plenty of time for the Salt Lake City Olympics.