The Unsporting Spirit

A friend, sound asleep in an economy class seat while crossing the Atlantic on an American airline, was jolted from his rest by the pilot's booming announcement. No, there was no emergency fire or failed engine...not even turbulence for that matter. The pilot had some breaking news for his passengers. George Bush dead? Troops being withdrawn from Iraq? Life on Mars? Heck no! "Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Phelps has just won his eighth gold medal."

The Phelps mania sweeping the US during the Olympics not only overshadowed The Dark Knight and Russia's invasion of Georgia, it also relegated practically every other Olympic sport and sportsperson to the broadcasting backwaters of television. Do Americans appreciate sports or do they just love gold? The NBC (Nothing But Crap) channel's almost exclusive coverage of events in which Americans were expected to win big, the biased and jingoistic tone of television journalists reporting the Games, and Michael Phelps being hysterically hailed as the greatest Olympian ever - all these would have anyone begging the question.

Here's the perfect example of how frustrating the Olympics were for genuine sports lovers in the US. The 100 metre track and field is widely considered to be one of the most if not the most significant event at the Games...it establishes who the ‘fastest' man and woman in the world are and is also watched closely for its world records. NBC, the official broadcaster of the Olympics in the US, connived with other international broadcasters to block access to live coverage of this event in the US - both on the airwaves as well as the internet. In this age of high technology, the Jamaican diaspora (a large number in the US) were reduced to asking relatives back in Kingston to hold their telephones close to television sets so that they would at least be able to ‘hear' Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser make history in Beijing.

In the US, NBC either completely ignored several events in which Americans were not participating (or not expected to win) or ran short recaps of some important events 13-15 hours after they had already taken place. In the meantime, besides repeating videos of Phelps winning his golds and interviewing American winners of small-time sports, the channel showed live coverage of events that can hardly be considered great Olympic sport - beach volleyball, baseball and handball!

Another interesting aspect of watching the televised coverage of the Games in the US was how, given American criticism of China's state-run sports programme that pressurises athletes to deliver medals, the channel and anchors almost completely ignored and even ridiculed silver and bronze medallists in favour of the golden boys and girls who were hailed as heroes. Everyone loves a winner but American adoration appears to be reserved only for those who stand on the tallest spots on the podium. Well-known American basketball player LeBrons James knows too well the ignominy of returning home without the shiniest medal of them all from the Athens Olympics...he spent his time in Beijing trying to live down the derogatory name that has followed him since - LeBronze!

As for Lopes Lomong, the immigrant from Sudan the US selected to march with the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies (in part to protest China's silence on Darfur), he is definitely history. NBC had hyped his participation in the 1500 metres, hailing him as the poor athlete who walked five miles in Sudan to watch Michael Johnson on a small black and white television set, eventually making his way to the US. Unfortunately, after Lomong came in last during the semis of his event and failed to make it to the finals, the anchors seemed almost embarrassed, saying little to acknowledge that a youngster from such an impecunious background had dared to live a dream and even make it as far as the Olympics.

But the most shameful video about how America treats those who do not bring home the gold has to be of the coach of American silver medallist in pole vaulting - Jenn Stuczynski. The girl with only four years of experience put up a great show before losing the gold to a far more experienced vaulter - Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, who broke the world record. As Stuczynski walked up to her coach in the stands, any joy she may have felt drained from her face as he berated her in an accusatory tone for her performance. Stuczynski returned with her head hanging in shame and probably received her silver without a smile...a ceremony NBC did not show. In fact, NBC hardly covered any medal ceremonies in which USA did not win gold.

So given their love for ‘excellence' and gold medals, one would think the US media would cheer every great athlete at the Games. Unfortunately that did not happen. Gymnastics was a prime example of prime-time sour grapes. When the US team lost to the Chinese, NBC did not hesitate to start pointing fingers at the underage-looking Chinese gymnasts. Agreed that the gymnasts looked younger than the official age and the IOC is investigating the matter. But until the fact is established, and even if the fact is established, is there any doubt that He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan gave fine performances? Are they not worthy of praise from those who claim to be connoisseurs of gymnastics?

There was some respite from the griping by NBC when the US girls took the number one and two spots in the individual all-round gymnastics medals. But the incredulous complaining returned in full force during the individual events. Nastia Lukin, US winner of the individual all-round, lost the gold medal to China's He Kexin in a close tie-breaker in her best event - the uneven bars. The NBC commentators immediately went ballistic - first suggesting that the judges were inexperienced, then complaining about the IOC's tie-breaking procedure, and finally, after the American coach herself told them that the procedure was applied accurately, saying outright that Nastia deserved to be standing at the top of the podium because she was better (according to the anchor who was presumably more experienced than the judges) than He Kexin.

Given that this internationally renowned television channel did not once mention the other controversy doing worldwide rounds on the internet - about the new swimming costumes and the nature of the swimming track at Beijing helping Phelps win his golds - it seems fair to say that the Americans are good at sports but not at sportsmanship. Their coverage of the Olympics certainly seems to indicate this.