USA Today, February 5, 2002
America loses if Olympics are all about USA
By Bruce Kluger
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
I leaned forward as the alphabetical procession reached G—Germany, Ghana—
and when Great Britain's team entered, I knew Grenada was coming up. 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 industry—and particularly NBC, which is televising the
Games—to resist using Salt Lake solely as a showcase for the prowess of our snow-
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 songs—Neil 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 complexities—and richness—of 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-
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, remember—and 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 yourself—there's a lot we could learn from a little
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