What Sochi taught us on how we talk about Olympic athletes

Feb 16, 2014; Krasnaya Polyana, RUSSIA; Bode Miller (USA) hugs his wife Morgan Beck Miller after competing in men’s alpine skiing super-G during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center. Mandatory Photo Credit: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports

Tear-jerking profiles are nothing new in the sports media world. If an athlete has a personal background that can be painted as tragic or inspirational, you can bet with certainty that his or her story will be brought to the viewing public’s attention at some point during his or her career. Yes, there’s a debate that can be had on whether such aiming-for-the-ol’-heartstrings profiles make for actually “good” or “interesting” pieces journalism, but it can’t be denied such stories have, at least, the potential to be effective. When done tastefully, the stories can indeed be moving and evocative, enhancing the emotional connection between fan and athlete.

The problem with such stories — Look What He Overcame, Look How She Struggled as a Child, Can You Fathom the Loss He Endured Last Year?, etc. — isn’t that they’re inherently bad. The problem occurs when such stories become bigger than the athletes themselves, defining the athletes for the viewing public in a way that obscures their competitive accomplishments and reduces them, the athletes, to simply walking sob-stories who happen to play sports.

And nowhere is such an act of defining more prevalent, accepted, and encouraged than at the Olympics.

Considering our lack of national interest in most Olympic sports outside of a quadrennial uptick in the name of patriotism, it shouldn’t be surprising that so much Olympic coverage seems to be more about the athletes’ struggles than their actual athletic feats. When you don’t pay one iota of attention to a sport for four years, it can be difficult to put an athlete’s Olympic performance within the context of his or her previous performances in that sport. There’s a weird illusion that’s created where it seems these athletes arise from their isolated training chambers once every four years to battle it out in events not on our (American) usual sports radar, when in reality Olympic athletes have been gunning for world championships and prestigious titles every year in the interim period between Games. Yet without such annual championships — for events like luge and skeleton and curling, say — receiving any media coverage — due to, let’s be honest, a lack of interest on the part of your average American sports fan rather than some insidious plot by the media powers that be — it becomes challenging to appreciate Olympic athletes as, you know, athletes. Reducing said athletes to heart-wrenching stories of woe is intellectually easier.

As an (admittedly imperfect) example, consider Brett Favre’s famous Monday night performance against the Oakland Raiders in 2003. One day after his father died, Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns on national television, and the sports media world exploded with admiration. It was a special moment, and while the praise Favre received for his strength may have eventually teetered over to hyperbolic, it’s hard to argue that there was indeed something very inspirational about an athlete playing the game of his life a day after suffering a major personal loss. Favre played the game with a heavy heart, and it made his performance all the more special.

However, there’s a stark difference between Favre’s story and the story of, say, all of the Olympians who have had deaths in their family become the main narratives surrounding them in Sochi. While Favre’s Monday night game is an integral part of his legacy as an athlete, it is not his whole legacy.

NFL fans saw Favre play on national television many times over his lengthy career. He turned in remarkable games and terrible ones. He oscillated between being a  hero and a goat. His accomplishments and shortcomings on the field were recorded, analyzed, and discussed on a weekly basis; fans saw a legacy be molded before their very eyes. Because we love the NFL, because we choose to pay close attention to it every week, because we have access to hundreds of columns and “takes” and opinions, it’s impossible to reduce a player like Favre to a single game, no matter how impressive the performance.

High and lows exist within the context of an overall career, and any off-the-field personal tidbits — and, yes, Favre certainly had some of the more fascinating ones — are dressing on the meal. Because of the sheer attention the NFL receives, even casual sports fans who, say, may prefer baseball to football, probably know relevant details about the career, legacy, and accomplishments of someone like Favre.

We choose to devote far less attention to Olympic sports, though. We could care about, say, annual world skiing championships, but on the whole we elect not to. With Olympic athletes, the aforementioned dressing is the meal that feeds our sports appetites.

By ignoring what Olympic athletes accomplish between Games, it becomes necessary for media outlets like NBC to do something to make viewers care about an athlete beyond cheering for him or her simply due to sharing a nationality. Could networks accomplish this without relying on stories of struggles and sadness? Sure, but aiming for the tear ducts is easier.

An athlete like Noelle Pikus-Pace has put together an amazing international career in her discipline, and it would be disingenuous to pretend NBC or other media outlets have neglected to mention her FIBT performances. However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, as a casual fan who only cares about skeleton every four years, you probably know more about her miscarriage than her world titles. She’s the Skeleton Competitor Who Has Overcome So Much, not the Skeleton Competitor Who Has Been Kicking Ass for Close to a Decade and Who Also Happens to Have Experienced Tragedy.

This act of reducing an athlete like Pikus-Pace to a single moment of hardship is unfair, inappropriate, and reprehensible. In a post about Christin Cooper’s controversial interview with Bode Miller, Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky aptly summed up the problem:

These are the Oprahlympics, a concept pioneered and perfected by NBC over the decades. Teary, sepia-toned sentimentality straight out of screenwriting 101. Competition isn’t nearly enough. We must see our Olympians vulnerable, emotional, and raw, but never complex. The perceived hounding of Bode Miller is the natural outcome of a mindset that prizes paint-by-numbers melodrama over the inherent tension of the Games.

The backlash against Cooper and NBC has been vicious. While not to excuse the decision of badgering Miller to open up about a difficult subject — the death of his brother — while live on-air, NBC’s interview tactic really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

As a viewing public, we receive the coverage we deserve and ask for, and that won’t change until we show we care about Olympic athletes — what they do, what they accomplish, what they go through — for longer than merely two weeks every four years.

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Tags: 2014 Winter Olympics Bode Miller NBC Sochi Olympics