Olympics: Bring on the schmaltz

To attract viewers who don't care about sports, NBC pumps up drama

Television

Athens Olympics

August 15, 2004|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,Los Angeles Times

By the standards of the modern Olympic Games, American diver Kimiko Hirai Soldati is the perfect athlete. She has visible scars from sports-related surgeries. She has had a major career setback -- knee surgery left her unable to continue to compete in her first love, gymnastics. She has known personal adversity -- her mother died after a long battle with breast cancer when Soldati was just 17; she wears her mother's wedding ring whenever she dives.

Her father was born in an internment camp in Idaho, making the family's patriotism even more poignant for being hard-won. And should she win at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, she would be, at the advanced age of 30, the oldest U.S. female diver to win a medal.

No matter what her diving scores, Soldati is already a favorite for the gold in the Personal Narrative Event.

In the last 10 years, the Olympic narrative has changed. In previous decades, the network broadcasting the event would focus on the stories of a few athletes, highlighting the immense dedication and sacrifice it takes to be an Olympian -- the 8-year-old girl getting up at 4 in the morning to go skating, the young man who gave up Little League so he could keep running.

More recent Games seemed to have three-hankie back stories for every competitor, chock-full of incredibly personal details -- the loss of friends and family, bouts with cancer and other illnesses, poverty and misspent youth, even issues of addiction and physical abuse.

'The golden nugget'

Critics have begun deriding the deluge of such stories with headlines like "The Crying Games" and wondering whether the sports are taking a back seat to the pathos. But the soap-operatic details are not going to decrease any time soon -- they are the bait with which NBC hopes to draw in enough nonsports fans to boost ratings to the record levels of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Multiple personal features also are a logistical necessity -- NBC will be providing 1,200 hours of coverage in Athens over the course of the Games; there isn't a commentary team in the world that can fill that kind of time. So there will be plenty of cue-strings type stories like Soldati's and that of modern pent-athlete Anita Allen, a West Pointer who has competed wearing an armband bearing the name of a close friend killed in Iraq.

NBC, which has broadcast the Summer Olympics since 1988, is not at all apologetic about its attempts to reveal the heart-wrenching backgrounds.

"The mantra is 'find the golden nugget,' find out something about these people that no one else knows," says Molly Solomon, coordinating producer of NBC's Olympic coverage, who is juggling 1,500 athlete bios in preparation for Athens. "Most of these sports are never seen on television, so we need to find the stories to help people understand these athletes, to give them a reason to root for them."

Blame, or credit, ABC news legend Roone Arledge with his "Up Close and Personal" features in the 1960s. Blame, or credit, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama that made the women's skating final at the 1994 Winter Olympics the sixth-highest-rated program in U.S. television history. Blame, or credit, a culture of personal revelation and an exploding sports media that require ever more "in depth" coverage.

NBC has broadcast the last nine Olympics, which means its research team has been following many of the athletes throughout their careers. That familiarity has allowed the stories to become much richer, Solomon says, adding that they are designed to draw in viewers, particularly women, who would not normally watch the Olym-pics.

From the time of the ancient Greeks, there have been athletes, like Jesse Owens and Babe Didrikson, who were "personalities," and some of their star power derived from having overcome great odds, personally and athletically. But pre-TV coverage focused on the events and relied on interest in sports and national pride to keep people engaged.

That's not enough anymore.

"There is just so much precoverage now," says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "The stories are prepackaged, and it's true for so many sports. Watch the Kentucky Derby, and hear the stories about the horses. By the time we got to Belmont, the violins were playing."

1994 a turning point

According to Wallechinsky, it was the 1994 Winter Olympics that changed everything. In one arena, there was Kerrigan competing against Harding, who was linked to the club attack on Kerrigan at the earlier U.S. Figure Skating Championships that injured Kerrigan so that she could not compete against Harding. In the other was speed skater Dan Jansen, who four years before as an odds-on favorite had raced the day after his beloved sister died of leukemia and, not surprisingly, lost. At Lillehammer, he again lost one race after another until, in his last event, he not only won the gold but broke a world record and did his victory lap with his baby daughter, named for his late sister, in his arms.

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