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Finding the Pulse of Athletic Human Drama (page 3)

Attractive, telegenic American swimmer Janet Evans, in Atlanta for her third Olympics after winning five gold medals, was perhaps NBCís favorite female star. The network handpicked Evans, who had "grown up before Americaís eyes," to carry the torch during the final lap of the opening ceremony; she passed the flame to the surprise torch-lighter, Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali as Olympic torch-lighter.

Janet Evans during a post-race interview.

NBC had great plans for Evans. Her dramatic story revolved around the very last race of her professional career (she announced plans to be a sportscaster, presumably for NBC). The unplanned drama ó which only added to the athletic human drama, NBC seemed to think ó was that Evans would swim with a broken toe. The tragedy (she whacked the toe on hotel furniture) was repeated incessantly by NBC sportscasters, even after a somewhat embarrassed Evans reminded them that such an injury has little consequence for a long-distance swimmer. Still, NBC was relentless on this point. In a prime-time interview with Evans on July 24, the day before her final Olympic race, Bob Costas waxed sycophantic in order to get more melodramatic mileage out of the swimmerís taped toe: "Are you trying to be, as you usually are, too classy to cop an excuse, and you donít want anyone to think that ó and this is really going to have an effect, but you just donít want to say it?"

In profiles of other athletes, we learned that the inspiration for Australian cyclist Kathy Watt is her cyclist father, who died in a freak snowstorm. Watt also overcome an Achilles tendon problem and was up against the most arrogant cyclist in the world, unlikable French star Jeannie Longo. American diver Mary Ellen Clarkís melodramatic "problem" is that she had just overcome vertigo. And American wrestler Dennis Hall was still dealing with his brotherís fatal car accident, which occurred eight years earlier. Most packages consisted of thickly written copy, a few athlete soundbites, music that jogged between serious/tragic and punchy/competitive, and close-up shots that attempted to "get in the mind" of the athlete. In all cases, the more teary-eyed confessionals, the better.

Olympic athletes soon discovered that the interest of the cameras had less to do with their athletic skills and more to do with their melodramatic possibilities. In one rare video package, swimmer Jeff Rouse revealed NBCís programming (and interviewing) strategy as he realized his own narrative shortcomings. Portrayed as a rival of team member Tripp Schwenk ("they are friends, rivals, and Americaís premiere backstrokers"), Rouse admitted to the interviewer that he didnít have "a real big" personal background story. "My life has gone really well for me," he apologized. "I didnít have any major childhood diseases I had to overcome or any major setbacks."

NBCís 1996 Olympic coverage typically considered American athletes as hometown favorites. But, under the new melodramatic rules, the American heroís "evil" challenger didnít have to be from far-off Russia, or embrace an "anti-American" communist value system; the "bad guy" could very often be an American teammate, even the heroís own training partner. In a single-minded quest for ratings and athletic human drama, the melodramatic miracle workers at NBC began to "find" potentially polarizing rivalries everywhere. If one American swimmer displayed "intense competitiveness" towards a fellow team-mate (merely swimming well was enough for NBC to justify such a charge), winning the race became an allegory for satisfying a personal grudge, or overcoming the greedy aspirations of an upcoming teenage star. After a swimming race where US teammates Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik came in 1 and 2 respectively, sideline reporter Jim Gray took pains to provoke discord between the swimmers, who were interviewed in NBC fashion, side-by-side.

GRAY: Eric, Tom, what about that race? He was with you every stroke, wasnít he?

DOLAN: Yeah, it was a great race. Iím just happy to win a gold medal. I think you canít ask for any more than that. Iíd like to have gone faster, it was definitely a struggle to get through it, but itís a great race for our team, 1 and 2. They were planning us to get 1 and 2 and they really relied on us, and we came through.

GRAY: Were you concerned at all going into the race tonight because this morning you had trouble breathing?

DOLAN: Yeah I had a lot of trouble breathing. I had some more tonight, but I know if I could just get in a race my body would work through it and it worked out.

GRAY: Eric, you guys trained together...did you prey upon his weakness tonight? Did you know you could stick with him?

ERIC: I was just going out to the stretch, going as fast as I could tonight, eight laps, all I had in me and I tried to give it all I had, and let the results take care of itself.

GRAY: This is your second straight silver ó you won a silver in Barcelona. Going up against the best in the world, is it disappointing or are you satisfied?

ERIC: Right now you know itís hard to feel the emotions...Iím happy to get another medal. Second Olympics, got two silver medals ó Iím proud of that.

Even as both swimmers resisted NBCís attempts to foment an interpersonal rivalry, the television network clearly favored Dolan as a character. Unlike Namesnik, Dolan was constantly juxtaposed with his family members in the stands, deeming him worthy of the same loving parental gaze from Olympic viewers.

In an after-race interview with American Gary Hall and Russian Alexander Popov (who trains in Australia), Gray continued his conflict-inspiring probes:

GRAY: How badly did you want to beat Gary because of all the pre-race publicity and all of the bad blood between you?

POPOV: I didnít think how bad ó you know, anything which is ahead of Gary is good.

GRAY: Is there a bit of a dťtente here now, because there seems to be a growing respect ó you guys are now doing an interview together again and you shook hands for the second time.

POPOV: Itís all right. I respect Gary. I respect everyone, I even respect...journalists.

GRAY: Gary, is there a bit more respect now for Alex based on what has happened in the last two races?

HALL: You know, itís been a great race and Alex is a tough competitor ó I would have liked to see things end differently but thatís the way it goes. Itís a great race and thatís what the Olympics are all about.

Popov and Hall, like most athletes, were savvy to the NBC manipulation. NBC no doubt found it frustrating that most athletes had taken training courses before the games to learn how to deliver acquiescent, modest and non-confrontational soundbites to the media.

One of the networkís longest and most excessive melodramatic rivalries involved Americaís two best female sprinters. In coverage of the 100m track race, Gail Devers was cast as the "sympathetic hero" while teammate Gwen Torrence was an evil spoiler, the "lightning rod for controversy," according to NBC reporter Tom Hammond. The story developed from a conflict the sprinters had in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics: Devers won the 100m and Torrence publicly questioned the race results. In various short and long packages ó one a week before the race, one three days before, and two on the day of the race ó and in sideline commentary, Devers was described as a saint, a competitive athlete with "no innate sprinterís nastiness" who didnít "have anything against anyone." Meanwhile, Torrence "ran with an attitude" and understood this race as "a battle." For visual aids, NBC regularly portrayed Devers as relaxed, communal and smiling, while edited shots of Torrence, usually taken immediately after a race, showed her grimacing, troubled and alone.

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