USA Today, February 5, 2002

    America loses if Olympics are all about USA

    By Bruce Kluger

    Two years ago, I turned on the TV for the
    opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer
    Olympics, broadcast from Sydney, Australia,
    specifically to watch the parade of athletes
    strutting into the stadium. I wasn't as
    interested in seeing the American team
    (though I wished them well) as I was in the
    Olympians from the tiny Caribbean country of
    Grenada. Since my daughters' births, both of
    their baby sitters have been Grenadan
    women; consequent-ly, our household had
    adopted the "Island of Spice" as our most
    favorite nation.

    I leaned forward as the alphabetical procession reached GGermany, Ghana
    and when Great Britain's team entered, I knew Grenada was coming up. And then...
    and then...

    Then a commercial for McDonald's. Or Ford. Or some product manufactured and
    sold in the Land of the Free. Needless to say, I was disappointed, especially when
    the broadcast returned after the commercial in time to catch the Hungarian team's
    entrance (we even missed Haiti).

    Was Team USA's entrance similarly interrupted by commercials? Are you kidding?
    That would be heresy. What followed for the next two weeks was the usual format
    for an American TV Olympic broadcast: dozens of hours of programming devoted
    primarily to Americans winning (and losing) medals, while the other nations of the
    world played Ed McMahon to Uncle Sam's Johnny. What a waste.

    As the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City approach, it's more important than
    ever for the broadcast industryand particularly NBC, which is televising the
    Gamesto resist using Salt Lake solely as a showcase for the prowess of our snow-
    blown superstars.

    Instead, the coverage both in the United States and abroad should embrace the
    international spirit of the Olympics. Especially in this calamitous year, viewers
    around the world need to see the Games as a celebration of the global community,
    in which Nords and Koreans and, yes, Iranians, stand shoulder to shoulder,
    wielding ski poles and hockey sticks, not M-16s.

    Granted, the terrorist attacks on America have put NBC in a bind, as the network
    searches for middle ground between feel-good globalism and coast-to-coast
    jingoism ("We're going to cover the Games as if they were a great coming
    together," says NBC Television Network president Randy Falco). But three days
    before the Games begin, it's apparent which sentiment will out-nudge the other at
    the wire. Promos for the Games swarm with images of Old Glory, as one of the
    network's theme songsNeil Diamond's Plymouth-rock-and-roll anthem, America
    pumps in the background. So much for the great coming together.

    I don't mean to sound like a wet winter blanket. Every sports fan knows that the
    Olympics is the prime time to don team logos, commandeer the La-Z-Boy and root
    the home team on to victory.

    But this year more than ever, the home team is Planet Earth. If the fallout from
    Sept. 11 has taught us anything, it's that America tends to look at the world through
    red-white-and-blue-colored glasses, touting the glories of her own culture at the
    expense of understanding the complexitiesand richnessof others.

    In the case of the Winter Games, NBC should depict the proceedings not as a star-
    spangled sports bash, but as an intercontinental backyard jamboree that this time
    just happens to be in our backyard.

    Judging from past Olympic broadcasts, three areas could use a rethink:

    Athlete profiles. You know the drill: It's 10 minutes until the race, and rather than
    fill airtime with equal coverage of the competitors, the network cuts to a pre-
    packaged, gooey segment about the American entry. Let's change that. With nearly
    100 countries participating, surely NBC can plumb the lineup for a more
    representative batch of bios. Like Hiroyasu Shimizu, a Japanese speedskater who
    committed himself to his sport to honor the memory his father, who died eight days
    before his 16th birthday; or Croatian Alpine skier Janica Kostelic, whose war-
    ravaged homeland considers her such a heroine that she's on a postage stamp; or
    Markku Uusipaavalniemi, a Finnish curler reputed to be his country's finest math
    student. The guy actually solved a Rubik's Cube in 25 seconds. Now that's must-
    see TV.

    Local color. If the coverage in Salt Lake is anything like that of previous Olympics,
    we can bank on round-the-clock Utah overload, with slick vignettes on everything
    from Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival to celebrity profiles on all 600
    Osmonds. Big mistake. We're hosting this affair, rememberand as anyone who
    has thrown a dinner party can tell you, it's not polite to dominate the table talk with
    stories about how fabulously you've decorated your house. I'd rather sit through
    travelogues that transport me to a snowless African village, where Kenyan Richard
    Rono somehow found the inspiration to become an Olympic cross-country skier; or
    the paddy fields of Dalian in the People's Republic of China, home to biathlete (and
    farm girl) Yu Shumei. Don't kid yourselfthere's a lot we could learn from a little
    televised globetrotting.

    Words from sponsors. No one knows how to pull patriotic heartstrings like the
    advertising industry, as it proved in the weeks after Sept. 11, when it ramped up the
    rampart-storming with flag- waving commercials by everyone from General Motors
    ("Keep America Rolling") to the New York Sports Club ("Keep America Strong").

    Don't get me wrong: The ads were terrific, the country was truly hurting (still is), and
    the spots were just the shot in the arm we needed. But if the creative minds behind
    these ads could incite such a heady sense of national pride in a time of
    desperation, can't they call on the same magic to promote a new kind
    internationalism? Madison Avenue knows how to do this; after all, wasn't it Coke
    that taught the world to sing?

    In the end, economics will decide what we see in the Olympic broadcast and when
    we see it. TV programming is a knotty bit of business whose content and context
    are dictated by the generation of dollars, not krona or pesos or yen.

    But one can still hope that the Winter Games telecast will begin to reflect today's
    changing world, which has suddenly and inexplicably become both a larger and
    smaller place to live.

    Me, I'll be tuning in once again, rooting as always for the Caribbeans. Unfortunately,
    Grenada won't be participating in the Games this year. But there's always the
    Jamaican bobsledders.