The Sob Sister Olympics

The Sob Sister Olympics

The Sob Sister Olympics

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The stadium scene.
Sept. 19 2000 11:30 PM

The Sob Sister Olympics

"In another improvement from Atlanta, NBC seems to be keeping the biographical sob stories to a minimum. It's the Olympics, not Queen for a Day."

—Robert Bianco, USA Today television critic

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To which one can only ask: What Olympics are you watching, Mr. USA Today TV critic? The Olympics I'm watching is so drenched in sob stories I can barely stand it. Every night, for instance, there is an NBC guy—Jimmy Roberts, I think his name is—who sits next to Bob Costas and gives us a backstory from the Olympic Games. The first one I saw, on Saturday night, was about the great Australian runner from the 1950s, Betty Cuthbert, now wheelchair bound, who carried the torch during the Games' opening ceremonies. As the music built to its tear-inducing finale, we learned about her courage in battling multiple sclerosis lo these past 25 years. Look, I'm sure she was courageous. My point is that you knew at that moment that this Olympics was going to be covered the way it's always covered on American television. You've got to have a box of Kleenex next to you to watch the damn thing.

Sure enough, that Saturday night piece set the tone. The next day, Sunday afternoon, could have been scripted by the Sob Sisters themselves. First came a qualifying heat in one of the men's swim races. The featured performer—at last as NBC saw it—was one Terence Parkin from South Africa. He had no chance of actually winning the race, the announcers conceded. Ah, but he was deaf! A deaf swimmer—can you imagine anything more "courageous"? Because of his handicap, he had a light placed next to him so he could see when the race began. We got to watch a swimming official move the light closer to him so he could see it better. It was heartwarming as hell.

Next up: the courageous story of Diana Munz, the U.S. swimmer who had a terrible car accident—so bad that, yes, there was a possibility she might never swim again! So bad, her parents said during the "feature story" about her accident, that if that truck had hit her one second earlier (or was it one second later? I forget), she would surely have died. In the feature story, the poor girl actually sat in a car and drove so that NBC could have some B-roll for the story. (Don't Olympic athletes realize that they can say no to such humiliating requests?) And after she finished her heat in the 400-meter freestyle (she would later take the silver medal in the event), Jim Grey, the network's idiotic "sideline" reporter asked her about her race—in the context of her auto accident, of course.

The violins went away—for about 10 minutes. Then up came Tom Dolan, the reigning champ in the 400-meter individual medley, preparing to swim his heat. To hear the announcers tell it, though, the guy really ought to be in some hospital somewhere instead of trying to set a new world record in his event. He has "exercise-induced asthma" one announcer said. (In fact, such asthma can be controlled, but the medications asthmatics rely on contain banned substances, which is why Dolan wasn't using them. Not that NBC ever got around to pointing that out.) Plus, he has chronic fatigue syndrome. But that wasn't all. Dolan has "also had major knee surgery." And what did the doctors tell him when he hurt his knee? "He'd never swim the breaststroke again." You're shocked, right?

Not that it was all swimming tragedies. After one commercial break, Hannah Storm took us to the "Men's Trap"—a shooting event that had been won earlier in the day by an Australian named Mike Diamond. Shooting, of course, is not the kind of sport that NBC usually televises. So why did the network show us Diamond? Because his father had died prior to the Olympics, and he had dedicated his performance to his late dad. As he was being interviewed, he started crying. That, of course, clinched it for NBC.

Sob Sisterism is only the most annoying of many annoying aspects of NBC's Olympic coverage. Ranking just below is the fact that the network pretty much refuses to show any sport that Americans are not likely to dominate. Myself, I'd like to see some table tennis—just because I've always wanted to see what serious table tennis is like. In table tennis, the Chinese are the dominant nation. Now, if only their star player had been in a car accident …  

Joseph Nocera is an editor at large at Fortune magazine.