Games Networks Play

While assorted waterbugs from Romania and Belarus and the suburbs of Cleveland bounded all over the mat and flung their tiny bodies back and forth between the uneven parallel bars, we had the whole thing explained to us on the boob tube by...John Tesh. Now it's a good bet that John Tesh can't perform the floor exercise any better than he plays the piano. But that didn't keep NBC, your network for the Summer Olympic Games, from using the bland ex-Hollywood gossipmonger as a gymnastics announcer down in Atlanta. Little matter that this was akin to signing up Stevie Wonder as one of the judges. It was clear from the start that NBC had no intention of letting knowledge interfere with glitz or of compromising relentless jingoism with actual reportage. If, early in the Games, you started adding up the airtime devoted to renditions (and repeats of renditions) of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Olympic awards ceremonies, you probably gave up at the two-hour mark.

By the way, is anyone familiar with the Hungarian and Australian national anthems? You are? How about humming a few bars so that the people at the network will know what they sound like?

When you hand over the equivalent of the Pentagon budget to broadcast the sports world's quadrennial outburst of nationalism, you do things your own way. NBC's way was to exalt all things American--from Carl Lewis to beach volleyball--while largely ignoring the rest of the world. Did you know that Jose Luis Ballester and Fernando Leon won the gold in Tornado-class yachting? Didn't think so. That's because the U.S. finished eighth. Catch that final in table-tennis doubles? 'Course not. Couple of noodle-eating Commies, Kong Linghui and Liu Guoliang of China, won the thing. The Americans likely wound up in a rumpus room in neighboring Alabama, learning topspin from Forrest Gump.

Meanwhile, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms was covering Olympic weightlifting, of all things, and our man Tesh was busy explaining the moves of the world's gymnasts--with special emphasis on the Americans, of course--as they indulged in their endless "gala," a post-medal exhibition performance that didn't even count in the standings but commanded plenty of coverage from the Peacock. Some other important segments of the gymnastics competition had also been concluded the night before: As John Tesh could tell you, Americans took three golds in crying and two silvers in coach-hugging--events at least as camera-worthy at NBC as the balance beam.

"Oh, my goodness!" Tesh exclaimed after one bug fell on her three-ounce derriere. "She must be decimated." Devastated, Big John. If you must, it would be "devastated."

Let's see here. The oft-invoked "Olympic ideal," as most people understand it, dictates that the world's most gifted amateur athletes, its finest young men and women, gather every four years to enjoy one another's company and determine who's best at rowing, running, riding, wrestling, fencing, shooting and, uh, synchronized swimming, among other events. The idea is to set aside political, cultural, linguistic, sartorial and culinary differences long enough to beat the crap out of the other guy in the boxing ring or to drown the man covering you in water polo.

Were it all so pretty as that. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who revived the Olympics in 1896, might have envisioned some dog-eat-dog action between the French and the Germans in rope-climbing, or spirited fisticuffs pitting Greek against Turk. But one look at the flag-waving, cheerleading Yankee spectacle these Games became on domestic TV and ol' Pete would have choked on his foie gras. NBC anchorman Bob Costas pounded away at the American achievements (such as they were) at every opportunity, then jacked up the whole enterprise with what the tube-oids like to think of as "human interest" stories--most of them inflected with an American accent, too. These little heart-warmers more properly belong in the realm of soap opera: hurdler Mark Creer running the semis with a broken arm; 400-meter man Alvin Harrison just redeemed from living in a parked car with his brother; super-sprinter Michael Johnson walking around with a letter from Jesse Owens's widow in his back pocket. On the rare occasions when NBC discovered "human interest" in a foreign land, meanwhile, it usually felt obligated to apologize. A piece on Cuban 800-meter silver-medalist Anna Quirot, for instance, dutifully explained how she had been horribly burned and nearly died when the kerosene stove in her hovel exploded three years ago, then showed how Fidel Castro came to her bedside.

"Whatever your politics..." the great minds at NBC felt compelled to add. Hey, haven't you guys heard? There are no politics at the Olympic Games. It's the world's most gifted amateur athletes, its finest young men and women, gathering every four years to...

Before you go all gooey and mushy over that, a news flash has just come across the desk: Some lunatic set a bomb off down there.

That's right. No kidding. A bomb. Killed two people in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park--an American woman from Albany, Georgia, named Alice Hawthorne and--let's see here--some guy from one of the other countries. If you stayed tuned only to NBC, however, you'd scarcely have known that anything more dangerous than a starter's pistol had gone off in the early hours of Saturday, July 27. After some cautious, quiet initial reporting about how the Games had been traumatized again, NBC hunkered down and protected its major investment by shooting the viewers right back out to the rowing venue and the tennis courts. While the other major networks covered this disaster-in-the-making in every available detail, the Peacock essentially stuck its head in the sand and yelled: Play ball! It wasn't for almost three days, in fact, that NBC breathed a word of comparison between the park bombing in Atlanta and the disaster at Munich in 1972, when Arab terrorists killed a dozen Israeli athletes.

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