The Crying Games
"New Lease on Life," announced the headline on The Times-Picayune of New Orleans sports page one day last week-and it had such a familiar ring, like the beginning of a thought you've had ten thousand times before. You could almost close your eyes and write the subhead yourself: "With the aid of a liver transplant, American snowboarder Chris Klug is able to overcome a debilitating disease and continue his quest for Olympic gold."
The next day, it's a different headline across the top of The Washington Post's sports section, but the same eerie sensation: "Overcoming Tough Sledding; Hungarian Driver Matches Determination Against Inexperience, Underfunding—and Cancer."
The Olympics are back, and American sports journalists are working around the clock to unlock the mysteries of athletic greatness. Which means news consumers are learning once again that behind every Olympic hero is something that matters much more than talent, more than discipline or tenacity or pluck or any of the other extraordinary qualities that long ago, back in the ancient Games (say, pre-1980), were sufficient to explain the amazing feats of real champions.
This crucial new factor, and the key to modern athletic fame and fortune, is a Really, Really Sad Story. As every Games-watcher knows, in the past few decades, the U.S. media have transformed the Olympics into an enormous public therapy session, in which athletes sit down with their journalist-shrinks and share all the details of their most anguishing personal experiences, particularly any trauma linked to the three D's: disease, death, and divorce. Jock and journalist work together, and sometimes cry together, as they struggle to understand these hardships and integrate them into an athlete's understanding of his or her journey. Without fail, by the end of these sessions, something amazing has transpired: the Really, Really Sad Story turns out to be the essence of the athlete's quest for Olympic gold and a clue to the meaning of existence itself.
Thus, The Times-Picayune reports: "Today, Klug calls his story a miracle. 'I was out of the hospital in four days and back on the snowboard seven weeks later,' he said. 'That is nothing less than a miracle.' Yet it also was a life-altering experience, pointing out the fragility of the human condition and the insignificance of athletic dreams."
And here is the really striking thing about the stories that have come to define Olympics journalism. While they pretend to elevate the Games by discovering their deeper human meaning, the sob stories wind up robbing the contests themselves of much of their power and drama. As the above passage all but says, how can a lousy snowboard race compete with a liver transplant? It can't. And come to think of it, who cares about snowboards anyway? Let's forget about this pointless ritual, this festival of transience called the Olympics, and go outside and enjoy the things that really matter in life—before we, too, need a liver transplant or lose our best friend in a tragic car accident.
The notion that any genuine human connection is being forged through these stories is pretty much destroyed when you see the same athlete rehearsing the same pain, on cue and on deadline, for dozens of different media outlets. How many times will we have to hear about the motherless childhood of American speed skater and recent Sports Illustrated cover boy Apolo Ohno? If you don't know his story yet, get out your handkerchief. As you'll soon know all too well, he's the "latchkey kid," the wild child who, after many lonely runs on a rocky beach, got a fateful blister. And the blister told him that, yes, he would go the distance, do whatever it takes to be an Olympian.
Why do the media run from their core duty at the Olympics—telling the authentically dramatic story of the Games themselves—to chase bathos and plastic empathy? Critics have pondered this question for years and have come up with all kinds of answers. It's about filling valuable airtime and news holes with content, a job for which those "Up Close and Personal" bios that ABC invented, and that NBC inherited and further mawkified, are perfectly suited. It's about the "feminization" of the Olympics, the effort to pull in more female viewers by giving them the soft, emotional content that women supposedly need in order to enjoy sports. And it's about the rise of the confessional culture, the relatively new American belief that baring the soul on a major television network is the highest form of redemption.
There's one more factor that goes unmentioned: In a country as rich and successful as ours, where medicine works wonders, most people are comfortable, and life is generally good, personal hardship is increasingly rare—and thus, a kind of news.
Watching the Olympic tearjerkers, it's tempting to kvetch that everyone has their problems, because everyone does. But it's also an inescapable fact that Americans live longer and better, and simply have it easier, than any other major civilization has ever had it. This remains true even in a time of terrorism and war. In some ways, the war has actually served to underline our own good fortune: the shots of life in Afghanistan, the constant reminders that the world is full of desperately unhappy people.
Maybe by playing up the ordeals of our athletes, the U.S. media are trying, in their ham-handed way, to suggest that life in America is not really all that different from life around the world. It's a very Olympic notion. But that doesn't make it true.