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Ugly Americans

Is there media coverage bias toward U.S. Olympians?

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Latest: Friday September 29, 2000 01:03 PM

  Inside Game - John Walters - The Channel Guy

Sports Illustrated media columnist John Walters checks in three times a week during the Olympics with his coverage of the coverage of the Sydney Games.

While watching U.S. sprinter Jeff Capel strut, woof and generally pull a Keyshawn after winning a heat in the 200 meters on Wednesday evening, I turned to a friend and said, "If I weren't American, I'd really despise the U.S.A."

"I am an American," he replied, "and I do."

Somewhere between Saving Private Ryan and Private Parts, we here in the States have lost our humility. We've gone from adhering to the former film's "Earn this" credo to an "I deserve this" arrogance. From underdog to, well, overdog. Worse, too often during these Games NBC -- or, as my editor calls the network, "NBxenophobe" -- has been complicit in perpetuating this superiority complex or at least loathe to admonish it.

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Take the Norway-U.S. women's soccer final, for example. It was a thrilling match, as tense as any sport has offered during the Games. However, when Norway scored the winning goal in overtime, commentator Andres Cantor's patented "goooooooal!" call was shorter and less enthusiastic than it had been when American Tiffeny Milbrett had tied the game a few minutes earlier.

"They [the U.S.] really played better than Norway," Cantor told Bob Costas during the late-night broadcast Thursday night. "It really hurts to hear [that winning goal call]."

The postgame coverage was treated less like Norway's victory than the U.S.'s loss. NBC did not air the playing of Norway's national anthem during the medals ceremony. For all I know, it could be "Norwegian Wood".

Capel's antics were yet another example. In the 200-meter final the U.S. sprinter finished dead last, the victim of his own twitch in the starting blocks. No official called a false start, leading someone in the NBC booth (Tom Hammond, I believe) to offer the opinion that Capel "was robbed".

Was he? Sure, Capel had a poor start but, as bronze medalist Ato Boldon told Jim Gray after the race, "When the gun shoots, you gotta go." Capel himself did not lay blame on the officials. But NBC inferred as much by devoting so much post-race coverage to Capel's botched start as opposed to Greece's Konstantinos Kenteris and his gold-medal-winning finish. It would have been nice to hear from the winner. After all, the Greeks do have something of a history with the Olympics.

Speaking of Greeks, it appears that only the mythical King Midas had a more insatiable appetite for gold than does NBC. Is it not enough that the U.S. win men's baseball, women's softball, men's beach volleyball, a fair number of aquatic events and so on? I understand to whom NBC is beaming its feed -- us, as in U.S. -- but it's OK with this viewer if the red, white and blue sprinkles some bronze and silver in with its gold.

Which is why American decathlete Chris Huffins is my new favorite athlete. Huffins earned a bronze on Thursday and he might have fared better if gold medalist Erki Nool of Estonia had been disqualified in the discus. After fouling on his first two tosses, Nool's foot appeared to have strayed beyond the circle on his final attempt.

"He [Nool] should have received zero points," NBC track analyst Dwight Stones said. Stones was probably right but in the Olympics, as is proven every four years, what's done is done.

Afterward, trackside reporter Gray interviewed Huffins and in not so many words asked him if he felt that he had been robbed of a gold medal.

"What I got today," replied Huffins, "was what I deserved. I'm very, very pleased."

Me, too, Chris. I'm glad you're on our side.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.

Related information
The Channel Guy: Sydney Games provide soap-opera spirit
Archive: Sports Illustrated at the Olympics
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