US takes gold for arrogance

The American media is living up to its reputation for parochialism in the Games, says Pat Butcher
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The Independent Online
Until the Atlanta bomb tragically internationalised the Olympic Games, the US media was living up to its reputation for parochialism. And even in and around the bomb coverage, the press in America continues to concentrate on the home talent.

Granted, when one of your national TV networks pays out nearly $500m for the broadcast rights to the Games, then shells out another $125m to cover operating costs, perhaps the preoccupation with US athletes is understandable. But it is no less breathtaking.

It was the same in Los Angeles for the 1984 Games. Watching TV or reading the local and national press, it was sometimes difficult to imagine that there was anyone else competing. The situation in LA was exacerbated by the absence of the boycotting Soviets and East Germans, who would otherwise have got in the way of Uncle Sam and his gold medal haul.

Last week, in the same vein, USA Today newspaper ran a graphic, explaining the break-up of the Soviet Union, with the caption, "Even the Unified Team, which reunited those 11 republics in Barcelona, won't be operating in Atlanta, bettering the US's chances of dominating."

You didn't have to be terribly astute during the intervening 40 years to recognise that the Olympic Games since 1952, when the Soviet Union first entered, had become the Cold War played out on the international athletic field.

After the collapse of the Eastern bloc half a dozen years ago, US historian Francis Fukuyama wrote a briefly celebrated book entitled The End of History. It presumed that the end of the Cold War was the end of global conflict. It was rather premature.

When you're a kid, you want your football team to win 10-0 every time. But as you mature, you begin to appreciate the tension and anticipation of close competition, and the rewards of good play, whoever provides it. You get the sense that America as a nation hasn't got that far yet. Or at least, the media hasn't.

How else to explain the plaintive headline in the local Atlanta Journal- Constitution, "No Gold for US"? This was after Day One! But then the rag quickly segued into a celebration of the new basketball "Dream Team" after what was only an opening round of a competition that "everyone knows" the US is going to win.

Things got moving from a US perspective in the next couple of days: a solid hour's coverage in peak viewing of women gymnasts on national network NBC featured not a sign of a foreigner. Odd, that, since the commentator, 1984 gold medallist Mary-Lou Retton, kept telling us that the US was the "underdog". So where were the favourites? Off camera, of course.

The "underdog" won. But lost in the welter of words and images of Stars and Stripes in the first week were some of the most gratifying and stirring victories, from citizens of small nations that deserve all the publicity they can get.

Michelle Smith of Ireland (three golds), Frederick DeBurghgraeve of Belgium, Danyon Loader of New Zealand (two) and even Claudia Poll of tiny Costa Rica won their countries' first swimming gold medals. Penny Heyns won South Africa's first gold since 1952, then promptly won another one. Jefferson Perez of Ecuador won the 20km walk to give his country its first medal.

There were some good tales here, but you wouldn't have known it from the US coverage. "Little Fred" DeBurghgraeve, as the Belgians call him to differentiate him from his famous father, used to train at 5am, thanks to a friendly pool attendant. He slipped off the blocks in Barcelona in 1992, having finished almost last, and gave up for six months. "Big Fred" enticed him back into the pool for water-polo, and the rest, as Fukuyama might say, is history.

Smith, married to Dutch discus thrower Erik De Bruin, ran into huge media flak despite her undoubted talents. Her husband has been banned twice for drugs. As a result, Smith was treated as if she were Ben Jonson, the discredited Canadian sprinter.

There were marvellous moments at her press conferences, when a wee fella would jump up to ask her questions in Gaelic. Smith obliged us by providing her own, fluent translations. But none of this got an airing in the US.

If proof were still needed of the American media's complete fixation with local athletes, whatever the attractions of the competitors, then it can be found in the spectacular hype surrounding track star Michael Johnson, universally tipped (by the US press at any rate) to win at least two gold medals. Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, who three weeks ago handed Johnson his first defeat in two years, said: "You can't predict winners like that. That's why there is a competition. Otherwise, you might as well hand out the medals now. The reason we come to the Games is to decide who's the best." The Yanks, of course, have already decided.

The author is writing on the Atlanta Olympic Games for the 'Independent'.