What Torino Teaches

The media's coverage of the Olympics has itself become a kind of spectator sport, revealing all sorts of lessons about how journalists cover contests, including political ones.

I used to detest the schmaltz of the Olympics. You know what I mean: The stories of disease survivors, car accidents, and unhappy childhoods that slowly but surely have been taking over the Games. So when NBC announced that its version of the Torino Olympics would feature a lot less of this stuff, it seemed like excellent news. Goodbye, saccharine sportif. Hello, pure athleticism.

But it didn't work out that way. Though NBC has indeed cut back on those stand-alone up-close-and-personal pieces, the product line is far from gone. When you see Jimmy Roberts and Bob Costas cozied up together for a chat, you know it's still triumph-over-adversity time.

In any case, the rest of the media stole the network's template long ago, and they've been punching out the soapy features like crazy, keeping the tradition alive. "Witty Carries Flag for Sexual Abuse Victims," read the headline over a story on Yahoo! News, picked up from the New York Post. "The flag of the land of the free and the home of the brave will be in particularly appropriate hands at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies tonight," the story said. "Chris Witty, a five-time Olympian and three-time medalist, is unburdened of the dirty secret of her childhood and courageously encouraging victims of sexual abuse to break their silence."

Those Olympians are always breaking their silence about something. And their sob stories will be with us forever. And now that we're a week into the Games, I'm starting to think that's not such a bad thing. It hit me when I happened on a women's snowboarding event equipped with no previous knowledge of any of the athletes. No female Flying Tomato was among the competitors—not a single orphan or known recipient of a major organ transplant. They all looked pretty much the same in their snowsuits and goggles. The most compelling moment was the color commentator's nonchalant use of "podium" as a verb (as in, "a rider who could definitely podium here today").

Unless you're a die-hard fan, watching a bunch of look-alike athletes slide down a hill gets pretty old pretty fast. Sports journalists—who understand all too well how dull sports can be—know exactly what they're doing when they chase those dysfunctional, tragic back stories. A single brave survivor would have made that snowboard event sing.

Olympic media coverage has itself become a kind of spectator sport, revealing all kinds of lessons about how journalists cover contests, including political ones. These particular Games have already yielded something I'll call The Bode Miller Rule. As you probably know, going into these Games, Miller was the ski star to end all ski stars. He isn't just talented, he has one of those "quirky" back stories that the media adore—the hippie parents, the off-the-grid childhood, etc. Better still, he gave 60 Minutes some quotes about his hard-drinking ways and general view of the world that were either unusually candid or unusually calculating (maybe both). Voila , the man made the covers of both Time and Newsweek.

Whatever you think about Miller, from a media consumer's point of view, he gives good content. He's very much like one of those early front-runners for president who later flames out. In fact, as I wrote this column, he had tanked in his first two events, and though he had three more to go, it was beginning to appear that juicing the media coverage might be his greatest skill.

Miller's early losses were a media win. The American who took the gold in one of those events, Ted Ligety, was a relative unknown. By upsetting Miller, he leaped into the spotlight, replacing the fading cover boy. The "shocking result" stories wrote themselves. "And the last shall be first and the first shall be last," began The Philadelphia Inquirer's.

The Bode Miller Rule is simple: When it comes to contests, the media need a straw man. Watch us set him up, then watch us knock him down. It happens exactly the same way in politics. Howard Dean was the Bode Miller of the 2004 presidential election. It remains to be seen who will play that role in 2008. Hillary Rodham Clinton? Mark Warner? To watch how it works, tune in to Torino.