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Finding the Pulse of Athletic Human Drama (page 2)

New World Olympian Melodrama

Communicating the melodrama of the Olympics after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would be more of an effort for television broadcasters, who had grown accustomed to the easy East versus West symbolisms. In the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, the former Soviet athletes, lacking clear national identities and their own uniforms, operated as the "Unified Team." The news media — like political leaders around the globe — struggled to make sense of the good and bad in this New World Order.

For those who neatly defined the world with simple binary oppositions, the new order brought disorder. National identities and boundaries — at least when it comes to athletics — have become increasingly fluid and insignificant. Viewers of the 1996 Games needed flowcharts to track the affiliations of many athletes. Gymnastics star Vitaly Scherbo, as commentator John Tesh related, "moved his family to America — the suburbs — and soon began living the American dream," but actually represented Belarus in the Olympics. Chinese world champion gymnast Li Donghua, having married a Swiss woman, represented Switzerland. NBA basketball stars Arvidas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis led the Lithuanian team (which was sponsored, in part, by the Grateful Dead), while fellow pros Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja joined their native Croatia for the Games. French track star Marie Jose Perec made her home in L.A at the time of the Atlanta Games. Even burly Russian weightlifter André Chemerkin is just a regular (read, "almost American") guy who eats a "McPower Meal" at the Moscow Mickey D’s when he gets a chance, we are told. It’s hard to take nationalistic sides when the athletes are eating at your burger joints, living in your suburbs, running on your streets, swimming in your ideology.


Weightlifter André Chemerkin.

Gymnastics star Vitaly Scherbo.

Of course, old paradigms are hard to break. Remnants of this narrative still crept in NBC’s 1996 coverage of Chinese, Cuban and former Soviet Bloc athletes: the "manly" Chinese women’s swim team was suspected of steroid-enhanced performances; China’s women’s gymnastic star, Mo Hui Lan was described as having been stolen from her parents (" Beijing, Lan Lan marches to work every day...") and given to grey-suited government officials ("It’s so lonely, her mother can hardly talk about it" {TEARS}); Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor was depicted as "a national treasure in Cuba, a hero of the one of the last bastions of Communism on earth"; and Romanian gymnasts (along with other ex-Soviet Bloc athletes) were considered recovering victims of the Soviet system where "your life is decided by others...medals meant honor. What was fair wasn’t even discussed."

As a chief melodramatic device of American coverage of the Olympics, though, the cold war has lost its pizzazz. The GOOD have clearly won, and nothing more epitomizes this than America assembling its pro basketball stars into "Dream Teams" in 1992 and 1996, providing humiliatingly lopsided victories over all comers. Ho-hum. Conflict makes a good story, and the post-cold war Olympics clearly lacked it.

As Jeffrey Mason explains in his book, Melodrama and the Myth of America, "the essential action of melodrama is to polarize its constituents, whatever they may be — male and female, East and West, civilization and wilderness and, most typically, good and evil." With the demise of traditional geopolitical narratives, NBC reinvented Olympian melodrama, and, out of narrative necessity, turned to individuals and individual conflicts to increase the tension, drama and excitement of the Games.

Checking Pulses at the 1996 Atlanta Games

With perhaps the exception of the pro basketballers on Dream Team II, the would-be characters of NBC’s Olympic melodrama were largely unknowns. To lure and then hold an audience, NBC’s main programming strategy was to promote certain athletes as people to watch. The tactic was to find athletes who had overcome incredible personal circumstances on their way to the Olympics: a horrible injury that needed months of rehab, a father dying of cancer, an unfair allegation of substance abuse, a sprinter who’s also a stockbroker. NBC produced an unprecedented number of "up close and personal" packages — more than 140 mini-documentaries — on a limited cast of select characters who would become, for American viewers, the familiar faces and television stars of the Games. Whether these athletes were American or not, their athletic circumstances and histories could be molded into a familiar melodramatic story. Once viewers then developed sympathies toward certain athletes, NBC could more easily publicize competitions with rival "enemies," adding more tension and gravity to the event.

A favorite on NBC’s cast was gymnast Vitaly Scherbo, a six-time gold medal winner four years earlier in Barcelona. Scherbo was competing only months after his wife, Irina, nearly died in an auto wreck on her way to the hairdressers. "You may have heard us tell you the story before," Entertainment Tonight alumnus John Tesh would comment nearly every time the gymnast stood up to compete. "Scherbo made his wife Irina promise that he would come back after nursing her through the most horrible crash anyone could be in. She shattered her pelvis. She had a concussion. She had one chance in a hundred to live." The two NBC packages on Scherbo included wrenching scenes of Irina returning to the crash site (a box of Kleenex in hand) to recount her story, and sun-lit shots of the family (they have a young daughter) walking down their safe, suburban street in Pennsylvania.

John Tesh during the gymnastics coverage.

Vitaly Scherbo and his family in their new Pennsylvania hometown.

To make Scherbo’s comeback more symbolically heroic, he now represented Belarus instead of the Soviet Union, and would be competing against the new star of his former coach, Leonid Archaev, who had made him a star. Given the favor and great extent of his coverage, Scherbo may have just as well represented America. He was back at the Olympics, however, not to defend Belarusian (or U.S.) honor, but to win a gold medal for his wife — who NBC cameras captured often as she sat in the stands and nervously bit her nails.

American swimmer Tom Dolan also had a good story. He had asthma, which could attack at any moment during a race — "his health has him forever swimming on the edge," the NBC sportscaster said. In fact, an attack had struck during a practice session not many weeks before the Olympics, an incident which left the swimmer gasping for breath and nearly dying on the tarmac, or so NBC made it seem. Dolan’s chief rival was his teammate and University of Michigan peer, Eric Namesnik, a silver medalist at the Barcelona Games who was nonetheless characterized as a bitter "nobody" who was forever waiting in the shadows to beat Dolan.

Gymnastics, which is always one of the most popular Olympic events, had its pre-ordained TV darling in Dominique Moceanu, who was originally Romanian and "looked just like Nadia." She was "living the ultimate fairytale" until she got a stress fracture on her shin six weeks before the Olympics. "The whole world is watching to see if this 14-year-old prodigy can live her Olympic dream," Tesh’s voice-over relayed as the package dramatized Moceanu’s perseverance in the gym. Glamorized shots of Moceanu and her infamous coach, Bela Karoly, soft-focused and tinted blue as they "worked out" together in an empty, sun-splashed gym, communicated a poignant, almost sexualized relationship between athlete and coach.

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