8/14/12

American exceptionalism at the Olympic Games

As a kid I watched the Olympics a lot.  I remember being charmed by CBC profiles of gymnasts who escaped the USSR and shoeless Ethiopian runners who used cinder blocks for strength training. To be sure CBC highlighted Canadian achievement at the Games, but it wasn't the emphasis.  Presenting the Olympic spirit of nations coming together really did seem to be the primary goal of their programming.

I only realized this might be a uniquely Canadian approach after sitting through a two weeks of NBC's Olympic coverage. It struck me that they talk almost exclusively about American athletes and in particular, those who win medals.  
American Brit Jessica Ennis wins gold. This picture no longer makes sense--except it shows Canada losing. 
Every night it's the same thing: a celebration of American superiourity in the pool, on the track, in the ring. It is all evidence of the undeniable fact that America is still the best nation in the world. After all, they beat out China in the medal count. What more proof do you want Obama?

To be fair there was some coverage of non-American athletes. Usain Bolt (a legend in his own words) and Oscar Pistorius (the South African who runs with two prosthetic legs) did receive considerable airtime.  While both are impressive in their own ways, doesn't profiling world's fastest man and a guy without legs seem kind of, like, obvious? Well done NBC for getting the low hanging fruit. 

The games of full of athletes with incredible stories. People who have found their way to the competition in spite of injury, financial hardship, and political oppression. Tell us about them NBC! Help us see the world for a few minutes from other points of view.  

My distaste for the whole "America is the best" shtick isn't just about being annoyed by two weeks of self congratulatory programming. Only exposed to winners, viewers miss some of the messiness of athletic competition: the false starts, disqualifications, and utter heartbreak that comes from not performing your best. I think the public is actually harmed by this sanitized version of sport (and by extension life).  They make it easy to forget that failure happens all the time, and at the highest levels and gives the impression somehow that Americans are immune.  

But maybe the only people who want to talk about American failure are me and Obama.

And I should add--none of this stopped me from tuning in every. single. night.   

4 comments:

Bonnie White said...

I actually heard an interview on the View while I was the gym where Obama was saying how USA is still the greatest, that everyone else still wants to be American and that everyone else in the world still wants USA goods. I have chaffed more than once at that egocentric perspective and would love to distribute this book http://www.amazon.com/That-Used-Be-Us-Invented/dp/0374288909 to those who can't see another perspective.

As for the Olympic coverage, stories that I think are really interesting are the disqualification of the Canadian men's relay team, the penalties called against the Canadian women's soccer team and the Japanese equestrian who is the oldest Olympian or youngest - Rebecca Tunney from the UK who is only 15.

As a viewer I'd like to know how those Chinese ping pong players train? What does a shot put athlete do to keep his shoulders from tightening?

Abbie said...

Can I get an AMEN!?

I was very tired of hearing about: Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas... on and on.

My own opinion is that a majority of Americans don't know sh*# about other countries (in general, not just in regards to sports) and couldn't care less. So many are stuck with the mentality that America is great, America is the best that they can't even comprehend how other countries function differently than the way we do.

When you look at any healthcare argument, you'll get many that scream socialism and will point out the flaws of Canada and Europe with hardly an acknowledgment that the majority of our nation is obese and our healthcare is failing.

Your post really hit a nerve with me. I am so tired of America is the best, America is the greatest. We are all great in our own ways. If we can stop trying to push others off the podium so that we can be at the top, we might just have a second to look at the world around us and realize that we have a lot to learn from others.

Anonymous said...

Acknowledged: the coverage was pretty brutal, and America does have, oh, the teensiest bit of an exceptionalism problem. That being said, Jess Ennis is totally British.

Mercedes said...

OY! anon: you are totally right! i'll fix it. as the huff post would say, "i regret the error."