Excerpts of radio interview with David Folkenflik

Sun media critic discusses Athens Olympics

August 20, 2004|By Baltimoresun.com Staff

WYPR FM's interview with Sun media critic David Folkenflik. Originally aired August 20, 2004.

Aaron Henkin, WYPR: Sun media critic David Folkenflik has been following the Athens Olympics in much the same way as the rest of the country - in the newspapers and on TV. He took a break from his work at The Sun offices in Baltimore to talk to us by phone about this year's unprecedented coverage. David, let's start by giving us a thumbnail sketch of the surreal media trajectory Michael Phelps has experienced over the last week.

David Folkenflik: The astonishing thing is the extent to which people are no longer allowed to emerge as sports heroes for having accomplished something. They've become sports heroes for being poised to be about to accomplish something. So before he had ever won a single Olympic medal, he was being presented both by NBC and its sister networks, and by many publications, including my own, as the world's greatest swimmer. And I think one of the things the Olympics does is it allows the opportunity to prove such things.

But, he was presented as this hero by virtue of being eligible to participate in enough medal events at the Olympics that he could exceed, potentially, the record that Mark Spitz had set back in 1972. Well, within the first 48 hours of the Olympics, it was clear he wouldn't be able to do that. He got a bronze medal and therefore was going to be unable to get the eight gold medals he needed to beat Spitz. Therefore, people started writing about him as though there was this aura of disappointment, and people started to use the word "failure" to describe what would have been an extraordinary event.

Remember, if any human being goes and wins a gold medal, they are an Olympic medalist. This guy had somehow failed to achieve the highest of records and was being written off. And then he started to win more medals and people started to realize that even with the bronze medals he won, he stood a chance at becoming the greatest medalist - not gold medalist - but medalist of the games.

WYPR: It almost seems ironically like he needed to initially disappoint before he could clean the slate and start fresh.

David Folkenflik: I think that's right. I think it's almost like covering a dot-com stock. The media went overboard, then corrected itself and then went, in a sense, underboard. It's another way of keeping the story alive. The media is fully capable of turning someone into a hero, into a goat, and back again in a fairly quick cycle. The amazing thing to me is that somehow, if he didn't achieve things that would have been extraordinary, that he had failed.

What's commendable is, if you think about Spitz, he had set world records in all of the events he won gold medals for already. Phelps had decided to compete in some events that he knew he wasn't the strongest swimmer in as part of an opportunity to test himself, and to be the kind of guy Sports Illustrated would put on its cover and the kind of guy Speedo would offer a million bucks to.

WYPR: I'm curious what your perspective is on how larger political realities are impacting the tone and focus of the Olympic coverage.

David Folkenflik: I do think that the media, like regular Americans, is eager to have a field in which they can find heroes that don't involve bloodshed. I think that people are delighted to build up heroes, because that way it doesn't have to be about the anxious combat of terror. It's no longer us against the Soviet bloc, so it's not that kind of geo-political game going on. But I do see it as a desire to mint new heroes and I think Phelps is an example of that, too.

Hear conversations with Sun writers covering the Summer Olympics, Monday through Friday at 5:45 p.m. on WYPR FM, 88.1.

August 20, 2004, 6:25 PM EDT

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