Friday, February 24, 2006

America's Overrated Olympic Dissapointment

The Olympics are an interesting phenomenon. The spectacle consists of countless sports that nobody pays attention to for four years. Sure, sports like figure skating and ice hockey get press between Olympics but the majority of the sports don’t even make it to the back-burner. They’re stuck in the cupboard. Yet, every four years, America is overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic Games. The media turns its attention to everything Olympics. Athlete-profiles start popping up in magazines and inevitably, predictions start creeping in. By the time the Olympics start, not only are most Americans briefed on who’s who in each sport but they’ve also got expectations for Americans they’ve never heard of to go along with it. Never mind that a very small percentage of the population had even heard of Chad Hedrick before February or that the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name Ted Ligety is a character from the Eminem-movie 8-Mile.

In the months preceding the Olympics, the media takes it upon itself to educate America about each event and the American athletes that will be participating in them. The media essentially shapes our views towards the athletes as well as our expectations. Since sports like curling and the biathlon are ignored in the United States nobody knows anything about them. As a result, we’re somewhat confined by what the media says. For instance, if I read in Sports Illustrated that Bode Miller and Chad Hedrick have a realistic shot at five gold medals, then I will expect those athletes to have exceptional performances at the Olympics. I don’t know anything about either athlete so I’m not going to argue with a writer who has spent time covering each athlete and surveying their respective sports. The media loves to say that so-and-so-athlete has a chance at 5+ gold medals. The fact that only one athlete has actually won five gold medals in one year in Winter Olympic history (Eric Heiden) seems to escape the press. Bloated expectations were also bestowed upon Michael Phelps in the 2004 Summer Olympics. In fact, the hype for Phelps was that he could possibly win eight gold medals. Regardless of how unrealistic it is for an athlete to win five or eight gold medals, when a news outlet makes that claim, Americans expect that athlete to at least come close to that total. It wasn’t until I watched the Men’s 1,500m Long-Track Speedskating that I found out that fellow American Shani Davis has beaten Chad Hedrick in seven of their eight head to head meetings. That alone should deter any talk of five gold medals for Hedrick. Despite Davis’ dominance over Hedrick in the 1,500m, the media still hyped the possibility of Hedrick winning five gold medals.

Coming in to this year’s Olympics, the media (NBC, magazines etc.) hyped this Olympic team as the best ever. The American medal-favorites were made stars before actually competing in the events. Fast forward to the second week of the Olympics and the mood has changed entirely. The media is having a “field day” with the American failures so far. Since the media shaped our expectations going in, we can’t help but to feel the same disappointment. As early as Bode Miller and Lindsey Kildow’s disappointing performances in downhill skiing (which happened in the first week), I was already feeling like the Americans were embarrassing themselves. This feeling progressed as other Americans like Apolo Anton Ohno and Chris Witty failed to medal in events.

Then, the reality of the situation hit me square on my forehead. I had been guilty of being irrational and ignorant. The belief that the Americans are failing in the Olympics is based on two fallacies. Two Fallacies that most Americans willingly accepted coming in to the Olympics. The first is the fallacy that the American athletes were being accurately hyped by the American media. The American media will surely overrate American athletes. NBC’s success in the ratings falls largely on its ability to get America excited about the Olympics. The way to get people excited about the Olympics is to give them a reason to watch. The more Americans that are “expected” to win medals, the more excited Americans will be so more people will watch. The second fallacy is that we have the right to judge people and their performances in sports that we don’t pay attention to with the exception of two weeks every four years. I have strong opinions on things that I follow (i.e. football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). I feel that I can make statements with regards to those sports and be justified in making them. However, for me to criticize Chris Witty because she got blown out in her speed skating events would be awfully reckless of me. I have no idea how good the competition is. I have no idea what Chris Witty has been through over the past four years. All I know is that she was featured in multiple magazines and was “expected” to win a medal again. The same goes with the women’s curling team and every other sport that I don’t pay attention to 99.9% of the time. For the first week of the Olympics, I bought these fallacies without any second guessing. I bought the media hype and I bought the fact that I had the right to expect greatness from people that a). I’ve never met or seen before and b). Know nothing about.

There is nothing wrong with being disappointed with athletes. I think the criticism directed towards the US Men’s Basketball Team in 2004 was warranted. America has the best basketball players in the world and a bronze finish in the Olympics is a black-eye for American basketball. But, to somehow turn America’s collective Olympic failures into a national crime or an embarrassment especially considering that we know little about these athletes is ridiculous. Again, the media is largely responsible for shaping America’s opinions. I just watched a post-figure skating recap by the American announcing team and one of the announcers said, “This clearly has to be viewed as a disappointment for Sasha Cohen.” I bet most people do view her silver medal as a failure considering how much hype she received. Her best finish on the national scene was a runner-up finish in the 2005 World Championships. Yet, it was gold medal or bust for her in the eyes of many. It’s unfortunate that a silver medal is viewed as a disappointment. That sort of thinking leads to the overall disappointing “feel” of the American performance thus far.

A sad reality of this year’s Olympics is the negative spin that has filtered out from the media. Low Olympic ratings have been blamed on such things as “American athletes’ failures” and a “decreasing American interest in the Olympics”. Although those reasons provide the best stories, the real reasons for the low ratings have nothing to do with either of those explanations. Americans like to watch live events. Nobody wants to watch an event on tape when they’ve already read the results on the internet. The majority of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics has been on tape. Thus, ratings are down. It doesn’t take a math major to figure that out. The second reason for low ratings is the enormous success of the shows on rival networks including Lost, American Idol, and Survivor.

The negativity surrounding America’s performance in the Olympics has overshadowed the fact that America is having one of its best Olympics ever. Here is a brief history lesson in the success of the United States in the Winter Olympics:

Year Medals
1924 4
1928 6
1932 12
1936 4
1948 9
1952 11
1956 7
1960 10
1964 6
1968 7
1972 8
1976 10
1980 12
1984 8
1988 6
1992 11
1994 13
1998 13
2002 34
2006 20 (and counting)

Instead of celebrating America’s arrival as a Winter Olympic force, most media attention has been given to the failed expectations. This, of course, is simply a byproduct of the ridiculous level of hype that NBC and other media outlets give to American athletes leading up to the Olympics. With many events still to come, the US already has the second most medals in its Winter Olympic history. That is certainly a far cry from the paltry medal count that was consistent from 1924-1998.

My feelings on “expectations” and “failures” changed gradually throughout the first week of the Olympics. I remember chuckling at hearing about the Canadian expectations in curling and hockey. The announcers were making a big deal about the possibility of the Canadian women’s team not winning a medal. They said it would be embarrassing to Canada since Canada “owns” curling. I thought that was a ridiculous statement. It made me realize how unrealistic Olympic expectations can be. There are hundreds of countries in the world that are home to thousands of dedicated athletes. For the Canadians (or Americans for that matter) to think that no other nation could possibly be good enough at curling or alpine skiing or whatever the sport is ridiculous. When Team USA (Men’s Basketball) finished 3rd in the 2004 Olympics, it was embarrassing because it consisted of the best players in the tournament. Any NBA team would gladly take every American player over every other player in the Olympics with the exception of one or two superstars (Manu Ginobli etc.). Women’s Curling is different. From what I saw, there were a number of competitive curlers. Sweden and Switzerland were clearly the best teams in Women’s Curling. For Canadians to feel embarrassed about not winning gold or silver is akin to the Patriots being embarrassed about not winning the Super Bowl this year. Just because you’re good doesn’t mean you’re going to win. That’s a lesson that the American media should learn above all else. That is a third fallacy that I failed to mention above. The same goes for the Canadian Hockey Team. There were six or seven great teams in the men’s hockey tournament. Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic all had teams that could match Canada’s prowess. Yet, Canadians were embarrassed because they supposedly “own” hockey.

The Olympics are fun to watch. I love learning the “ins and outs” of quirky sports like Curling and the Biathlon. The Olympics are even more fun to watch when you watch them with an open mind. Preconceived notions will likely ruin your Olympic experience. I’ve come to enjoy watching whatever event is on the screen whether there’s an American competitor or not. I enjoyed watching the Men’s Hockey Tournament infinitely more so than I enjoy the NHL. The Olympics are marketed to Americans as a chance for America to shine and dominate. The reality should be that the Olympics are a time to enjoy sports that are as rare to see on TV as it is to see a wolverine in Michigan. I just hope that I remember not to buy into the hype next time around.

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