Network coverage seems a bit biased, eh?

Canada, not the U.S., is more often subject of NBC's focus, sympathy

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 18, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Over the past 20 years or so, it's become common to see the American networks turn their coverage of the Olympics into a single-minded exercise as though only one country's athletes mattered.

I just didn't expect for NBC to decide that country was Canada.

Time and again, the network's announcers became noticeably worked up as they focused on the Canadian competitors. In hockey, skiing and, of course, skating, NBC has eagerly tracked the travails of America's neighbors to the north.

It's as though NAFTA has finally delivered on its promise to blur the distinctions between North American neighbors, though there haven't been too many Mexican athletes at these cold-climate games. Perhaps network executives are courting the one untapped demographic pool left for TV in the age of cable - the 30 million Canadians who live within 100 miles of the border. Maybe Bob Costas & Co. have taken it upon themselves to make up for Canada's exclusion from the list of allies thanked by President Bush after the terrorist attacks.

Whatever the reason, Canadians are drawing favorite-son coverage.

"We'll be back to follow this amazing story of Team Canada's impotence so far," said Jim Lampley, host of NBC's coverage on its cable channels, as he strained to explain why it was surprising that the German men's hockey team was holding the Canadians in check.

Over on the main network, NBC's Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic (herself an Olympic athlete for - need I say it - Canada) bemoaned the fate of Canadian figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier as soon as their second-place scores were announced. But would the support have been as strong had they not been so politely Canadian? Would the skaters have been fielding quite so many marketing offers over the course of the past week had they not proved so ready-for-prime time?

Then allegations emerged that the Russian pair's first place resulted from some back-door deals, triggering the most prominent headlines of the games. As they sought to repair the public relations damage, Olympics officials hastily arranged a medals ceremony for the Canadians, but not so hastily that they forgot to schedule the event at the end of NBC's prime-time broadcast last night. The president of the skating union, who had a few days earlier suggested it would be nearly impossible to remedy the situation, personally conferred the medals on Pelletier and Sale.

Compare that to the fate of U.S. short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, apparently destined for the gold, who was dragged down by a young South Korean foe yards short of the finish line Saturday. The American, deeply cut by a stray blade, lunged forward skate-first to hold onto the silver. The collision involved four competitors, so an Australian won by being the only finalist left standing.

The judges, under the authority of the same federation that handled the disputed figure skating contest, decided not to re-stage the event. During an interview with Costas last night, Ohno said he tasted victory. But he demurred when asked whether he should have won.

"I pretty much went in there to skate my heart out," Ohno said. "Everything I was working for for four years wasn't for medals." Admittedly, there are no allegations about his contest, but maybe if Ohno had also cried just a little, on camera, he would have had another shot. The announcers weren't outraged about the gold that was snatched away.

Oh, sure, it's refreshing to see U.S. networks focused on people other than Americans. Past athletes such as speed skater Catriona Lemay Doan deserve notice. But it's a big world out there. Surely there are some others to champion beyond our sap-tapping friends up north. In 2004, how about Afghanistan?

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