Like millions of Americans, my wife and I watched raptly as Paul Hamm battled back from his calamitous tumble to heroically win, er, be mistakenly awarded the gold medal as best all-around male gymnast. But just as gushy Tim Daggett declared this victory the greatest single sports-viewing moment of his whole life—this week, anyway—NBC posted the final results. “Hey,” Sandi yelped, “who’s that guy who finished fifth?”
Freezing the screen with my trusty TiVo, I was startled to encounter the name “Rafael Martinez.” Heard of him? Me neither. Although this Spanish gymnast had finished only .0274 points behind Hamm’s winning 57.823, we’d never even seen his face. He’d been erased from the event, like the Czech leader in that Kundera novel whose head is airbrushed out of an official Party photo so that only his hat remains.
Martinez’s disappearance wasn’t ideological, of course. He simply didn’t fit into NBC’s Hamm-fisted approach to the games, which edits dozens of hours of action into taut dramas designed to flatter our national jingoism. Just as Survivor always highlights the contestants most likely to get voted off the island that week, so our Olympics coverage showcases those foreign competitors who directly challenge the Americans. It ignores those like Martinez, whose performances, however dazzling, might somehow confuse the official prime-time storyline.
Now, I’m not one of those real-time-worshipping, C-SPAN–loving media junkies who get offended whenever TV edits down events—it’s the job of the media to mediate. Nor do I think NBC’s flag-waving a uniquely American annoyance. If you had been watching Spanish TV when Hamm won, you doubtless would have seen Martinez—dubbed “the best and most complete” gymnast by Madrid’s unbiased El País—battling to win a medal, perhaps in defiance of unfair judging. Olympics coverage always plays to nationalism, and this year that strategy is working. Carly Patterson’s victory in women’s gymnastics was watched by 31 million people, almost double the number who tuned in to see John Kerry do that corny reporting-for-duty salute.
To be fair, NBC’s saturation coverage has been far sharper than in recent Olympics. It has pared back the treacly “up close and personal” profiles of U.S. athletes that were always America’s big-budget equivalent of Socialist Realism (still going strong in Bush and Kerry’s self-aggrandizing campaign ads). And it has finally adjusted to losing the old East-West agon that turned every fourth year into an ideological referendum. When I was a kid, the Olympics came steeped in larger significance—the games were the Cold War’s Cold War. It seemed to matter desperately that we Americans should win more medals than the Reds. That rivalry is now gone, and nothing has replaced it; as the preternaturally glib Bob Costas joked, Al Qaeda isn’t fielding a team in Athens (at least not at the Olympics). Aside from an Iranian judo player’s refusal to compete against an Israeli, the games’ most striking political moment came when the upstart Iraqi soccer team expressed outrage that their country’s presence in the Olympics was being exploited in a commercial for Bush. Sure, they were happy to have Saddam gone, but they were damned if they’d be used as a product placement for Dubya—a president they hate.
If the games have lost their old geopolitical resonance, they still let commentators dust off the cultural clichés. Mercifully, we have passed the era when a sportscaster could call Japanese ski jumpers “little fellas,” as one did during the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, but facile ideas of national character keep being trotted out as home truths. When “sassy” U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. struts around in robes like a prizefighter or grouses that he’s not getting enough attention, he gets to be the Wild One praised for his “defiance.” (The L.A. Times‘ Bill Plaschke dubbed it “very American.”) When “moody” Svetlana Khorkina talks about the bad gymnastics judging, she’s a “diva” with a temperamental streak the size of Mother Russia.
As ever, the media keep insisting on our national innocence. Where NBC’s profile of Patterson played up her fresh-faced youth, its broadcasters reminded us that the rival Romanian women had made a Japanese gymnastics video in the nude. Who would do something like that? OK, OK, the original Olympians. But at least they didn’t tape it. Anyway, the Romanians were paragons next to the Russian diva. As the Detroit Free Press‘s Michael Rosenberg noted, “Patterson enjoys biking, swimming and using her computer. Khorkina enjoys drinking, smoking and posing nude for Playboy. Good vs. Evil, anyone?” Like so many journalists, he pretended to be joking about the cliché he was actually embracing.
You found the same slippery humor on sports-talk radio. Jim Rome kept replaying a clip of Hamm saying that winning was “wonnnnderful,” as if this was hilariously unmanly. The same attitude reigned outside the Jungle. Traveling through Iowa, I heard a local sports-talk host tell his partner that he liked watching gymnastics, then quickly added, “only the women’s.” Cue the nervous laughter. It’s remarkable how many sportscasters still traffic in homosexual panic in a day so obsessed with male fitness and grooming—what the ancient Greeks, I believe, termed “metrosexuality.” Why, Rome himself is so muscled-up and neatly goateed, it’s positively wonnnnderful.
As ever, the Olympics also challenged our ideas about womanhood. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when women’s lib and not steroids shriveled men’s genitals, the fear of female power often played itself out as disdain for their physical strength; the games were invariably filled with obligatory cracks about “manly” female athletes (especially the East German swimmers who actually did take male hormones). These days, nobody blinks when a Speedo’d teenage girl boasts trapezoids like Gubna Schwarzenegger’s, although when NBC did its profiles of Amanda Beard and Jenny Thompson, it did take care to have them made up and lit to look unbutch. Beard even said she was happy to have appeared in a Maxim spread on female Olympians that purred, “These sexy athletes . . . have spent a lifetime honing their bodies to absolute perfection. The least you can do is gawk.” The least? From what I know of the magazine’s readers, gawking is the most they can do.
The Athens debate about women’s bodies focused once again on gymnastics, a sport that appears to be governed by Lewis Carroll and Humbert Humbert. Long gone are the days when leggy, sometimes voluptuous Soviet women twirled gracefully across the mat. These days, the premium is on cutesy teens, as small and bouncy as crickets, whose pyrotechnic routines are astonishing but inelegant. This prompted Salon‘s King Kaufman to froth that “Gymnastics tries to reconfigure women’s bodies, to keep them childlike. It’s sick and wrong.” In such words, you could sense a nostalgia (among many men, anyway) for female athletes with the kind of full-figured bodies so hopelessly out of fashion that even Hollywood wants its actresses, J.Lo briefly excepted, to have backsides like teenage boys. You can almost hear studio execs braying, Bring me the ass of Cameron Diaz!
Both the media and public love turning sporting events into morality plays. This has certainly proved true in Athens, where, even before it lost a couple of games, the U.S. men’s basketball squad had begun turning from Dream Team into Dream Whip. You heard endless palaver about how the team needed “shooters” and lacked “fundamentals” (although the team’s best player, Tim Duncan, is so fundamentally sound he’s boring). On ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, Adam Schefter claimed, “This group represents all the flash and dash—all the highlight-reel tapes—we’ve come to dislike.” It was hard not to detect a tincture of racial feeling in such complaints against a squad captained by Allen Iverson (!) and filled with young stars like LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony. If you follow the game, you know that terrific black players are too often hailed for their “athleticism,” while less-gifted whites are praised for “knowing how to play the game.” Indeed, it was no coincidence that, whenever they talked about the team’s dismal three-point shooting, the commentators kept bringing up names like Brent Barry and even the retired Steve Kerr. White guys, it seems, can shoot.
Listening to sports talk, you realized that this team had become the symbol of everything that’s supposedly gone wrong with sports—be it the flashy NBA game, our “spoiled” professional athletes or the absolute triumph of commercialism. No matter that other U.S. athletes flaunt corporate logos and tell TV interviewers they like the Olympic Village because they can eat all the free McDonald’s they want. No matter that ads enriching Paul Hamm, Carly Patterson, and Michael Phelps (who’s already plugging Visa and cell phones) will soon be as inescapable as sales tax. All the anger is aimed at the greedy guys on the Dream Team. Indeed, as I write, I suspect most Americans are rooting for them to lose. It would serve the bastards right.
If they come home without grabbing gold, the Dream Teamers may yet come to envy Rafael Martinez. At least he remained invisible.
John Powers will talk at Housing Works, 126 Crosby Street, August 30 at 7 p.m.