Five-ring Circus

In the Vault

An injury mars the last night of Olympic gymnastics. Who knew?

There was enough excitement and controversy in the final day of the gymnastics competition for a whole Olympics. When Aleksei Nemov was awarded just a 9.725 after a masterful high-bar routine, the crowd jeered for more than eight minutes. All the while, Paul Hamm, whose all-around gold medal has been tainted because of a scoring error that unfairly penalized South Korea’s Yang Tae-young, stood waiting to start his routine. NBC reveled in the dramatic irony.

There had been another memorable, bracing moment earlier in the evening when Russia’s Alexei Bondarenko injured his spine after a pair of nasty falls in the vault competition. Bondarenko, the silver medalist in the vault in Sydney, nearly fell on his head on his first attempt. Clearly in pain, he then landed on his side on his second try. Reuters reported that Bondarenko’s injury “overshadowed” the vault victory of Spain’s Gervasio Deferr. “It was an unsettling moment for the other gymnasts,” said the Toronto Star. It might have been an unsettling moment for people watching at home, too—that is, if NBC had chosen to show it. The amount of coverage the peacock devoted to Bondarenko’s frightening falls: zero minutes.

Instead of kicking off its vault coverage with Bondarenko, the first competitor, NBC skipped ahead to China’s Li Xiaopeng before showing the three medalists—Latvia’s Yevgeny Sapronenko, Spain’s Deferr, and Romania’s Marian Dragulescu. Not only did NBC not show the Russian’s two falls, viewers weren’t given any kind of indication that they had happened. At no point did the network’s gymnastics commentators or studio hosts say that Bondarenko had been injured and taken to the hospital. (American newspapers, seemingly taking their cue from NBC, ignored Bondarenko, too. Only the AP, Reuters, and several foreign papers mentioned his injury in their coverage of yesterday’s apparatus finals.)

Bondarenko isn’t some no-name. He’s the only Russian gymnast other than Aleksei Nemov to warrant a bio on NBC’s Web site, and the network also pegged him as one of the favorites to win the men’s all-around title. Since it’s hard to argue that the circumstances—a former medalist and current medal favorite getting carried out of the arena on a stretcher—weren’t newsworthy, why would the network shield its viewers’ eyes when Bondarenko got injured? (NBC did not return two calls asking for comment.) If the same thing had happened to Paul Hamm, or even Nemov, NBC certainly would have documented every second. Gymnastics fans probably would have been comforted to know that, though he’s still in the hospital, doctors say Bondarenko didn’t suffer any neurological damage. Then again, they never knew he was hurt in the first place.