Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
by Morris Sullivan
Note: Canadians and Yahoo visitors, please read
Okay, I know that's not really true--Canadian figure skaters suck.
I guess that's probably not true, either. But while watching the Winter Olympics, I got really pissed off. I even conceived my own "axis of evil," which mainly included Canada and NBC sports.
In case you live under a rock and managed to completely miss the news, Canadian figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier won a silver medal in the couple's figure skating competition during the winter Olympics. Apparently, that wasn't good enough for the duo. NBC didn't like it either, so the couple bitched about it and the newscasters bitched about it until the Olympic committee literally turned their silver medals into gold--an act that could only be accomplished through the alchemy of the contemporary news media.
I admit I know next to nothing about figure skating. I gather, however, that there's an artistic element involved, which renders judging inherently subjective. From what the NBC dorks kept saying, Jamie and David should have gotten a gold medal because they fell down less often than other skaters. That's kind of stupid, really. It is possible to perfectly execute a completely soulless creative work; the fact that actors in a shitty movie manage to remember their lines and not fall over the scenery doesn't make the movie any less shitty.
Frankly, I found the Canadians' routine boring. While they may have technically skated better than the Russians who won the gold medal, I found them less interesting to watch. In fact, I thought their routine was less interesting than many of those that won no medals at all.
"Morris," you might be thinking, "Perhaps your opinion is less worthy than that of the NBC guys. Maybe those announcers know more than you."
Maybe, but I doubt it. Among these idiots was, for example, an announcer who opined that maybe the reason South Americans didn't win many winter Olympic medals is that there's not much ice and snow down there. That announcer never heard of the Andes, I guess, despite the fact that a rugby team once crashed in those mountains; the survivors endured several months of brutal winter weather by digging their less fortunate teammates out of the snow and eating them.
So, you wonder, why am I so pissed off about this? Aren't there more serious things to get steamed about? Yes, there are: there's global warming; a war in Afghanistan that might extend to Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, among other places; an American president whom the American people probably didn't elect and an American people who have forgotten that; legislators who blithely ignore the constitutional injunction against the separation of church and state and others who seem to think it's okay to suspend its protection of expression once you cross their state or county lines--I could go on and on.
Yet, I'm still pissed at Canada and NBC. There are three reasons: first and foremost, the "figure skating scandal" is a prime example of the mainstream electronic media creating a "big" story out of thin air. Second, it's a good example of the "I say it's true, therefore it is" attitude of the news media. And last but not least, the endless prattle about the skaters severely hampered my ability to enjoy this year's winter games.
I rarely watch sports on television. I know perfectly sane, intelligent people who won't miss Monday Night Football and would willingly lose a leg rather than miss the Super Bowl, but I get bored just thinking about ridiculously overpaid super-athletes standing around during the endless time-outs of the average NFL game. And even that is exciting compared to baseball.
However, I like the Olympics. I could get philosophical about the games representing the peak of human physical achievement; about how the athletes are technically amateurs and therefore a more realistic gauge of human potential; about how the games give the world a chance to set its differences aside and enjoy a healthy, non-fatal competition and all that. Mostly, though, I just think they're fun to watch.
This year, I was particularly interested in one sport; I'd interviewed a bobsledder who lives and trains near me, which is kind of weird, since I live in Florida. He was a nice guy, his wife was a nice lady, and had his team won, he would have been the first black male to ever win a gold medal in the winter games. (He won a silver medal.) I wanted to root for him.
Unfortunately, every time I turned on the television to watch the Olympics, I had to sit through an interview with David and Jamie, another blow-by-blow analysis of the situation, another video excerpt from their routine, and finally another triumphant replay of their gold-medal-receiving. Just in case an NBC Sports sponsor is reading, let me state for the record that, once the bobsledding was over, I finally eschewed NBC's broadcast in favor of the curling competition on another channel.
You know it's got to be pretty damn boring if it makes curling look exciting.
Of course, it wasn't always boring--sometimes it was infuriating. NBC's announcers repeatedly remarked that David and Jamie were "gracious" about "the scandal."
Bullshit. During their interviews, Jamie came across as a snide little bitch with all the grace of a trailer-park housewife; David might be a decent guy, but sitting next to her he just seemed like a pussy-whipped geek.
I watched their first interview after they were awarded the gold. The pinched-faced Jamie snorted derisively at the mention of the Russians; when she tried to say something nice, it carried all the genuine sincerity of Formica. Yet the analysts said she was "gracious." That puzzled me. Were these guys morons?
Then it hit me: the sportscasters, for some unexplained reason, wanted them to be gracious; therefore they must have been gracious. The whole affair was a slap in the face at the sort of international good sportsmanship the Olympics is supposed to represent, yet the news anchors gushed like schoolgirls about what good sports Jamie and David were.
I'm reminded of a conversation I just had with a lawyer I know. I quoted him in a story, describing him as a "prominent civil rights attorney." He liked that, and laughed about it a little, as if he wasn't sure he was "prominent." Of course he's prominent, I thought. When I say, in print, that he's prominent, I make it true.
As a journalist, I was most annoyed by the fact that this story never would have existed were it not for the "journalists" involved. There were other controversies at the Olympics this year, and thousands elsewhere. Yet this story, above all others, managed to capture the attention of most Americans and consume a staggering amount of airtime.
There's an axiom I've heard used both in quantum physics and management theory: a behavior, when observed, will change. NBC looked at the skating competition, they showed it to the rest of us, and in so doing, changed it. That's one of the pitfalls of news coverage and also one of its strengths. Had NBC's announcers treated David's and Jamie's silver medal as just another medal story, it's unlikely the unprecedented awarding of a second set of gold medals would have occurred.
I wondered what would happen had the situation been reversed. Would this still have been an important story? Would NBC have given two hoots in hell if the judges treated "unfairly" some Bulgarian couple? The answer, clearly, is "Nope!" In fact, no one worried about the effect on all the other contestants in that event of the allegedly shady judging.
That also puzzled me. I suppose Jamie and David became an international incident because they're Canadian. Canada, as you know, supports the U.S. in that other war, the one with all the terrorists and stuff (which means when the draft is reinstated, you draft-age kids will have to escape to some other country). On the other hand, we've re-kindled the cold war with Russia, so they're the bad guys.
It reminded me of my childhood, back in the "duck and cover" days. Wrestlers (the TV variety, not the Olympic types) used to play "good guy" and "bad guy" roles. Really bad-guy wrestlers would have Russian-sounding names, just to make sure you knew they were evil devils. When the Mad Trotsky would whip Mountain Boy Jethrošs ass by bashing a chair over his head, it was cheating. When Jethro would bash Trotsky over the head with a chair, it was justice.
Those wrestlers metaphorically represented the national mood. In simple Black versus White terms, they fought the battle between Americanism and Communism--between good and evil.
Similarly, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze represent a country we distrust. They speak English with funny accents (even funnier than Canadian accents, that is), and you can't pronounce their last names. They are, therefore, inherently worthy of suspicion.
Jamie and David, on the other hand, represent the "good" side of the world. They're from our continent, speak our language, and live in a country that supports our war. And that, I'll wager, is why NBC Sports made such a big deal out of this. We were all supposed to identify with the Canadian couple and root for them in the battle of good against evil.
I hope NBC and Canada will forgive me if I'd rather have my own personal war against evil fought by Mountain Boy Jethro.
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