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, whos 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 Hamms winning 57.823, wed never even seen his face. Hed 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.
Martinezs disappearance wasnt ideological, of course. He simply didnt fit into NBCs 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, Im not one of those real-time-worshipping, CSPAN-loving media junkies who get offended whenever TV edits down events its the job of the media to mediate. Nor do I think NBCs 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 Madrids 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 Pattersons victory in womens 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, NBCs 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 Americas big-budget equivalent of Socialist Realism (still going strong in Bush and Kerrys 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 Wars 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 isnt fielding a team in Athens (at least not at the Olympics). Aside from an Iranian judo players refusal to compete against an Israeli, the games most striking political moment came when the upstart Iraqi soccer team expressed outrage that their countrys 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 theyd 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 hes 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, shes a diva with a temperamental streak the size of Mother Russia.
As ever, the media keep insisting on our national innocence. Where NBCs 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? Okay, okay, the original Olympians. But at least they didnt tape it. Anyway, the Romanians were paragons next to the Russian diva. As the Detroit Free Press 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 womens. Cue the nervous laughter. Its 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, its positively wonnnnderful.
As ever, the Olympics also challenged our ideas about womanhood. Back in the 70s and 80s, when womens lib and not steroids shriveled mens 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 Speedod teenage girl boasts trapezoids like Gubna Schwarzeneggers, 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 magazines readers, gawking is the most they can do.
The Athens debate about womens 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 Salons King Kaufman to froth that Gymnastics tries to reconfigure womens bodies, to keep them childlike. Its 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!
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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. mens 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 teams best player, Tim Duncan, is so fundamentally sound hes boring). On ESPNs The Sports Reporters, Adam Schefter claimed, This group represents all the flash and dash all the highlight-reel tapes weve 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 teams dismal 3-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 thats 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 McDonalds they want. No matter that ads enriching Paul Hamm, Carly Patterson and Michael Phelps (whos 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.