NBC’s Olympics

The U.S. experience of the Vancouver Winter Olympics was shaped, unfortunately, by viewers’ access to broadcasts and reports. NBC once again demonstrated its inability to understand this global competition and the sports within it. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo telling them that the Winter Olympics is supposed to be about the world coming together in a shared love of sports, exposing viewers to new and old sports.

NBC’s nationalistic coverage, however, wasn’t really about American athletic superiority. Instead of actually covering the American teams, they promoted certain individuals who had been deemed sufficiently white-bread, cooperative, and photogenic. NBC turned the broad canvas of the Olympics into a tabloid soap opera, complete with wretched production values, pre-selected stars, baddies, exclusions, and homophobic bullies.

X on XX’s Ski Jumping

On the first day of competition, we were treated to the gorgeous sport of ski jumping. Until these Olympics, the record for all jumpers at Vancouver’s Whistler Mountain was held by an American, Lindsey Van, who, according to NBC, "held the jump record of 105.5m for the normal hill at Whistler until Swiss legend Simon Ammann bettered it on the way to the gold medal in the 2010 Games."

Ammann was able to out-jump Van for at least one obvious reason: women were prevented from competing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wouldn’t agree to a women’s event or allow women to compete against men—with whom they train. One side effect of the IOC’s stand is that it diminishes Ammann’s achievement by sidelining top competitors. A dozen women ski jumpers took a lawsuit all the way to the BC Supreme Court—pointing to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which bars gender discrimination—only to be told that it’s up to the IOC. They’ve unsuccessfully challenged this discriminatory ban year after year.

Bullying On Ice

Stuck in the Winter Olympics among such hyper-dangerous sports as the luge and moguls, figure skating is forever on the defensive. Johnny Weir, a member of the American figure skating team, is a three-time U.S. National Champion. As long as he’s been in the world of competitive skating, he has been the object of homophobic ridicule and scorn. Throughout the Vancouver Olympics, NBC broadcasters described his behavior as "flamboyant" and his often eloquent and elegant words as "sound bites"—in an attempt to marginalize his joyful gender-bending.

Johnny Weir refuses to discuss his sexuality, which he sees as a private matter, irrelevant to his work on the ice. He struts down fashion show runways, does photo shoots in stilettos, and is filmed taking a bubble bath with his best boy-pal, Paris Childers, in the documentary Pop Star on Ice. He designs and sews his own glorious costumes, often pushing the boundaries of camp. This is enough to provoke open horror from skating officials who like their men butch and their women sweet, if not childlike.

The fans feel otherwise. They chose him as winner of the 2008 Reader’s Choice Award for Skater of the Year (Skating Magazine) and the U.S. Figure Skating Association was forced to announce this additional achievement.

Despite Weir’s prominence in his field, all assumptions about Canadian good manners and good sense were negated by remarks made by the French-language RDS broadcast network’s Claude Mailhot and Alain Goldberg, who criticized Weir for "femininity" and for setting a "bad example" by making boys who skate worry that they "will end up like him." Goldberg called for Weir to pass a "gender test" and Mailhot answered that Weir should be made to compete in the women’s event. By conflating their homophobia, transphobia, and sexism, these sports announcers raised the specter of the attacks on the South African runner Caster Semenya, forced into so-called "gender testing" after a winning run in a 2009 international meet. The Quebec Gay and Lesbian Council has since demanded an apology.

Weir responded with impressive grace to this frantic gender stereotyping. Speaking afterwards with Olympian skater Dorothy Hamill on "Access Hollywood," Weir was unapologetic. "Every little boy should be so lucky as to turn into me," he told her. At a subsequent press conference where Weir joked, "I grew my beard out a little bit just to show that indeed I am a man," he expanded on his response by talking about his hopes that more children would have both his opportunities and supportive parents like his, who "let me be an individual, who gave me freedom, and taught me to believe in myself before anyone else would believe in me."

Other outlets sought to match the French Canadians’ comments. Australian sportscasters Eddie McGuire and Mick Molloy sneered about the skaters’ costumes and a rumor that one skater was straight, "But it definitely wasn’t this guy," referring to Weir. A Facebook page was quickly established named "Eddie McGuire is ruining the 2010 Winter Olympics coverage."

Then the former Canadian champion Elvis Stojko struck out against "effeminate" male skaters, whom he blamed for preventing hockey fans from loving figure skating. Stojko told Salon.com that he only identifies with skating that has "masculinity, strength, and power." This from a guy who admits to having been called "twinkle toes" as a young skater.

In a February 19 interview, after Weir was ranked a disappointing sixth, despite a beautiful, clean routine, the respectful NBC commentator Mary Carillo asked Weir, "Could you have done something that could have gotten you on that podium?" He replied with gracious comments about both his long-time rival and teammate gold medalist Evan Lycecek and the tough-guy Russian silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko. Then he answered philosophically, "Politically, I don’t think it was possible for me to be on the podium. And figure skating is a political sport…. I kinda knew coming into these games that a medal wasn’t really within my grasp for me." Later, in a discussion between Carillo and Stephen Colbert, the latter insisted that Weir deserved the silver medal.

Lots Of Gay

The Vancouver Olympics did not utterly lack queer content. The opening ceremony included at least two out gay Canadian performers on center stage—fiddle player Ashley MacIsaac and the singer k.d. lang. According to OutSports.com, there were five openly lesbian competitors in Vancouver, none of them from the U.S. As a home away from home, two Pride Houses were opened by the Vancouver LGBT community to serve athletes from around the world. One Pride House was located in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village, away from the Olympic facilities. Set up as an educational and social center, it provided visitors with resource materials about queer places of interest. The other Pride House was established in Whistler, the second Olympic setting, where the major partying was reputed to go on. For some athletes, coaches, and parents, these history-making safe spaces were an invaluable break from the pressures of the closet.

The Cult Of Personality

Regarding NBC’s approach, despite receiving criticism after the Summer Olympics, NBC again provided tabloid-like coverage that fetishized a few selected Americans at the expense of, well, showing the events. So even as we were deprived of anything but snippets of many events, American viewers came away with clear impressions of Apolo Anton Ohno’s neck mole, Lindsey Vonn’s eyeliner, and Shaun White’s cascading auburn curls. At one point the cameras followed Ohno’s floating head around the ring, entirely severed from skating, competitors, and the rink. Before the matches we saw scene after scene of Ohno yawning—long after we got the point. We repeatedly saw him composing himself before the race. But where were his competitors? What was going on while we stared at him chilling? Where was the wide view of the rink and the fans? Were there any fans other than his dad?

And what about Lindsey Vonn, the Alpine skier? One wonders if she was promoted so much more than her medal-winning teammates because, as we found out later, she has been in year-long discussions to appear on NBC’s "Law and Order." An earlier cover photo of her ass up in the air sold a lot of copies of Sports Illustrated, which also didn’t hurt her NBC-constructed super-stardom.

Meanwhile, Julia Mancuso (two silver medals—about equal to Vonn’s gold and bronze) became the evil one when she quite sensibly pointed out that the relentless focus on Vonn throughout the competition hurt the rest of the American team. NBC turned this into a duel, grilling Mancuso about her "attack" on Vonn and interviewing Vonn so often that viewers were left begging for a bit of actual Olympic coverage instead.

Not only does the undue attention on a few athletes affect the performance of everyone involved, it also impacts their future. According to the New York Times on March 1, "For Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, and Shaun White, winning medals at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver is their ticket to future endorsements. Their success, good looks, and compelling stories should add to their growing stable of sponsorship deals with a variety of companies, marketing experts say."

In its only nod to international feeling, NBC saturated the airwaves with their coverage of Canada’s six-time national figure skating champion Joannie Rochette, who won the Olympic bronze just days after her mother passed away. Her father, who Rochette said was very shy, could not escape NBCs intrusive parent-adoring cameras, despite his obvious discomfort in the public cheerleading role her mother had played.

Rochette’s story was indeed moving, her performances were impressive, and I would have been happy to see her interviewed once. Twice. Okay, I could have taken three times. But she became part of the rotating stable of pretty faces used as fillers while competitive events were left sight unseen or relegated to channels no one could get. I wonder how many other athletes at this Olympics were functioning under personal tragedies and challenges.

In fact, there were over 2,500 athletes in Vancouver. Perhaps I missed NBC’s profiles of alpine skiers Anna Berecz from Hungary and Leyti Seck from Senegal or of cross-country skiers Erdene-Ochir Ochirsuren from Mongolia, Pakistan’s Muhammed Abbas, and Kazakhstan’s Elana Antonova. Even worse, what did we hear about the Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen who won the most medals of any 2010 Olympian? An asthmatic with several piercings, this 29-year-old won three golds, one silver, and one bronze at her third medal-winning Olympics. Another Norwegian, Petter Northug Jr., known for his bravado, came second in the overall standings with four medals—two gold, a silver, and a bronze. Do you recognize the names of these champions?

Even the Ads Collaborated

The ads on NBC during the Olympics were echoes of what we were or were not seeing. There was more cult of personality, with Apolo Ohno a ubiquitous huckster. There was the homophobic "joke" in the Verizon ad, in which the father of a family blushes over accidentally admitting that he watches figure skating, to the scornful frowns of his entire family. There was a torrent of sexist and maudlin P&G ads under the slogan "Proud Sponsor of Moms." So even during the breaks, there was no escaping the poverty of the Olympic experience we were given and the frustration of knowing that, while the competitors and trainers were doing their jobs, NBC’s cameras were caressing Ohno’s headband and Vonn’s pearly whites.


Sue Katz is an activist, author, journalist and blogger offering frank talk about aging, sex, the Middle East, class rage, and ballroom dancing. She singlehandedly brought down the McCain/Palin ticket with her book, Thanks But No Thanks: The Voter’s Guide to Sarah Palin.