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Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2000 / 6 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Good show, bad sports -- UP UNTIL RECENTLY, the worst thing you could describe about the Olympics was network coverage of the games. I'm not talking about the 15-hour time difference between the United States and Australia, which required NBC to show videotaped versions of events you could read about in your morning newspaper. (This was a technical problem which seemed to offend many journalists; but given the reality of the size of the planet, was unavoidable and deeply trivial.)

No, what has made television coverage of the Olympics painful in recent years is the process of Oprahfication. Instead of allowing viewers to watch the athletes compete, without dramatic narration, we are treated to incessant profiles of participants, all of whom seem to have overcome some disability, or family misfortune, or tragic roll of the dice which may only be redeemed by the winning of a medal.

Olympic athletes are part of a national team, and used to say that they had triumphed (or tried to do their best) for their country. Now, that sense has been largely supplanted by the first person singular, from We to Me. The pole is not vaulted for the home team anymore, but for the person doing the vaulting, in his/her struggle for redemption, revenge, recovery or recompense. Nike is the flag these sportsmen salute.

What I am driving at, I suppose, is the decline of Olympic sportsmanship, especially (perhaps exclusively) among American athletes. I know that famous sportsmen are seldom what they seem -- Sam Snead is an old sharpie, and Babe Ruth was a slob -- but, in public at least, athletes tended to perform to an ideal. Money has something to do with it, no doubt: Multimillionaire pros have few incentives to behave themselves, and amateurs earn little beyond admiratio. But something has happened in the world of sport when someone like John McEnroe complains about bad manners.

And for Americans, at least, these latest Olympics provided more than a few embarrassments. There was James Carter, the 400-meter hurdler from Baltimore whose mother was in Sydney because her fellow workers paid for her airline ticket and hotel room. With 20 meters to go in his semifinal event, Carter, who was well ahead of the field, slowed down, turned to his competitors, and taunted them to hurry and try to catch up. Then there was Amy Van Dyken, the Colorado swimmer, who has the habit of filling her mouth with water before a race and spitting it into the lane of her principal rival: A psychological device, she explains.

In these instances, at least, the gods were not mocked. Both Carter and Van Dyken came in fourth in their final events, just missing medals. (Indeed, the gracious Dutch swimmer Van Dyken sought to intimidate, Inge de Bruijn, beat her handily.) But there was no comeuppance for the winning American relay team -- Maurice Greene, Bernard Williams, Jon Drummond and Brian Lewis -- whose preening, clowning, gyrations and exhibitionism earned them the loudest boos in the stadium. And while Michael Johnson is a great runner, his habit of standing in front of any camera and reciting his mantra -- "Only gold; no silver, no bronze" -- made more than a few of his countrymen cringe.

To be sure, poor sportsmanship is scarcely confined to the Olympics. Professional football now features spasmodic dance movements (called "hot-dogging") to celebrate touchdowns or harass frustrated players. Baseball games are routinely interrupted for shouting matches with umpires; tennis is replete with grunting sore winners. And with the invention of the video camera, we get to witness parental fistfights at Little League games on a regular basis.

So what happened? My own theory is that the Oprah effect has somehow combined with the legacy of Muhammad Ali, elbowing gallantry aside and ielding arrogance. Now that he is afflicted with Parkinson's disease, it is considered bad form to speak of Ali in anything but the most reverential terms; but what attracted the chattering class to him in the first place is now largely the problem of sporting behavior. It was Ali who literally and figuratively thumped his chest, racially taunted the gentlemanly Floyd Patterson, and scoffed at his obligations as a citizen. "I am the greatest" began as a joke, but has since become a basic presumption.

Of course, expectations are a problem in sport: We tend to invest all manner of virtues in people who run faster or hit harder than others, but whose character has nothing to do with their achievement. Still, in Sydney these past weeks, it was hard not detecting a national pattern. Even Svetlana Khorkina, the alluring Russian gymnast whose pout was nearly as impressive as her skill, conceded her place in the vault competition to an aspiring teammate. Try to imagine Amy Van Dyken, or one of the American relay runners, performing such an act of self-abnegation. You cannot, and that's the problem.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian