The Olympics are over, and I miss them already. Plenty of people have complained about the television coverage, so I won’t bother to join the chorus of NBC bashers. Seems to me that our own Syracuse University almost-graduate Bob Costas managed as well as anyone can within the constraints of such hyper-managed, controlled corporate enterprise.
Think of NBC at the Olympics as like Tass, the old Soviet news agency, but with better graphics. They were basically the only game in town, and we should see them as such. Is the TV coverage too focused on American athletes? That question is too obvious to merit a reply.
Should they cover more events live rather than distill the greatest hits into an evening broadcast? Well, sure, that would be nice, except this isn’t C-Span: It’s commercial television. Plus there is the question of the five-hour time difference. And the $64 billion question: How much coverage would women’s beach volleyball receive if the players wore burkas? I think we will never know.
The signature feature of NBC’s Olympic television coverage has always been the dramatic human interest story that broadcasters seem to uncover behind every single athlete who appears in any event.
Hurdler Lolo Jones, we learn while the soundtrack is playing for effect, is the daughter of a single mother, a self-professed Christian virgin at age 29, posed nude for a sports magazine and had spinal surgery, nay, she “endured painful and risky spinal surgery,” after her foot hit a hurdle in Beijing, keeping her from grabbing the gold. Fade to commercial.
We see glowing profiles of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who NBC loves in spite of his glaringly obvious failure to have been born in the United States. The footage shows how Bolt rose out of grinding poverty to become the fastest man alive (repeat, “fastest man alive” ad nauseam), so fast that his face can take on all the urgency of a man looking for a parking spot during the last 10 meters of the 100-meter dash. Fade to commercial.
And of course, Gabby Douglas, all 90 pounds of her, who endured the stares of Iowans unaccustomed to seeing African Americans competing in gymnastics and the abandonment by her deadbeat (or deployed) dad to find her way onto the podium, becoming the first African American to win the overall gymnastics competition, and capturing the hearts of millions. Did you get the point—this girl is African American (Costas certainly made sure to drill it home)? Fade to commercial.
Breathless commentators are quick to label the feats of amazing athletes like Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas “historic, as if historic and “unprecedented” mean the same thing. The history that Douglas belongs to requires a certain amount of context to understand.
The history too rarely told goes back to 1968 in Mexico City, when a pair of African American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. Smith’s time of 19.83 seconds made him the first runner to finish the 200 meters in less than 20 seconds. That was unprecedented.
What followed was historic. When Smith and Carlos mounted the podium to receive their medals, instead of saluting the U.S. flag, they each raised a gloved fist in a black power salute. As Smith explained in a post-race interview with the late Howard Cosell, “My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’ raised left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power.”
Their gesture, a symbol of a people still struggling to escape Jim Crow, took extraordinary courage and elicited the immediate outrage of Olympic officials. Avery Brundage, then head of the International Olympic Committee, suspended the pair for making a political statement at the games, and they left the Olympic Village under pressure.
Their defiant gesture took place just six months after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It came in the year after Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Army because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and a year before a St. Louis Cardinal named Curt Flood refused a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, famously writing to Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn that “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
Ali, Flood and the two sprinters put America on notice that African Americans were no longer waiting for equality: They were ready to seize the power that would ensure equality.
Smith and Carlos helped create the world into which the fabulous
Douglas was born. They were among the heroes of the black power and
civil rights movements upon whose shoulders the nimble gymnast stands.
You may not hear their stories on NBC, but their courage resonates
through the decades and made her victory in London possible, even
historic, in its own right.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.