Drama Takes Gold At Winter Olympics

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Lack of sportsmanship, offensive costumes, and disagreements over medals are just a few of the choice moments being aired daily as part of this year's Winter Olympics coverage. The sporting event, so far, has been a ratings powerhouse NBC, which has exclusive broadcast rights. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks with Lisa de Moraes, columnist for The Washington Post, and Dave Zirin, a sports writer for Edge of Sports, for some of the more talked about — and dramatic — highlights.


I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, our money coach spells out the new credit card regulations.

But first, the Winter Olympic Games are drawing as much attention for the off-the-ice drama as the competition on the ice. The televised spectacle at times feels more like a reality show than an athletic competition. Ice dancers wear offensive costumes, figure skaters and speed skaters clash over results and snowboarders and skiers provide those potential agony-of-defeat moments.

The athletes still go for the gold, but some of the most memorable scenes come from all the drama, such as when Russia's Evgeni Plushenko had badmouthed gold medallist Evan Lysacek.

Mr. EVGENI PLUSHENKO (Figure Skater): But anyway, I think we need to change the judging system, because quad is quad. If the Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump quad, now it's not men's figure-skating, now it's dancing.

NEARY: Joining us now is Lisa de Moraes, television columnist for The Washington Post and also with us is Dave Zirin, who writes at edgeofsports.com. And he's with me here in the studio, and welcome to you both.

Ms. LISA DE MORAES (Television Columnist, The Washington Post): Wow.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Writer, Edgeofsports.com): Thank you. Glad to be here.

NEARY: Dave, let's start with you. What do you make of a figure skater who disses virtually all the competition, not just the guy who beats him? Was this like one of the worst cases of bad sportsmanship we've seen in the Olympics or is it just a natural offshoot of athletic competition at this level?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, it's part of a lot of what we're seeing at this Olympics. And it wasn't just Plushenko. Johnny Weir - who is probably the most famous male figure skater in the United States - he came in, I believe, sixth. And his first response was not, well, I should have come in third. It was, well, this is about the politics of judging. You can't have two Americans in the top three.

So while Plushenko is getting a lot of publicity, it's not him and him alone. And I think what you're seeing, you said it perfectly, I mean, this is about reality television and about the broader culture and how it's infecting the Olympic Games.

I mean, the Winter Olympics are big business right now. They actually just beat one of Lisa's favorite shows, "American Idol," in the ratings which used to be an absolutely unforeseen thing, that it would do better than "American Idol."

Ms. MORAES: Yeah.

Mr. ZIRIN: But the ratings are up more than 22 percent from Torino four years ago, those winter games. So this is big money, big business and people are trying to get their share of the limelight.

NEARY: And, Lisa, the ratings have been great. So does that mean - and there's been a lot of drama - does that mean people like the drama? That's what that's about?

Ms. MORAES: Yes, it absolutely means people like the drama. The night that the games beat the "American Idol" on Fox, however, I have to say in fairness, NBC had created the perfect primetime storm by tape delaying Lindsey Vonn's gold medal win so that it would air in prime time along with two other American gold medal wins.

And "Idol," in the same hour, was running nothing. There was no competition. This is the episode in which the singers each gets brought into a room so that the judges can bat them around them for a few minutes, torturing them as to whether they've made it into the final top 24 and finally announcing that they have or have not made it to the top 24.

But there's just no getting around the fact that these Olympic Games have really caught on with the American public. The numbers are up noticeably.

NEARY: Well, and I also have to ask you about that tape delaying of events, because NBC is being criticized by people for doing that. They have been for a number of the past Olympics. But now, you know, with the Internet, for a lot of people, it seems almost ridiculous. I mean, all you have to do is, you know, click on to your home page and you're going to see the results. So what's the point of tape delaying? Are they going to keep doing that or are they going to...

Ms. MORAES: Well, the point of tape delaying is to get ratings. And the fact that Lindsey Vonn's downhill race, even though a swathe of the American public already knew what the outcome was, did a tremendous number. So it works. And so, yeah, they're definitely going to keep doing it. Whether we like it or not, they will keep doing this.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, the Internet can sometimes produce more smoke than fire, and there has been a tremendous amount of heat on the Internet -particularly the sports blogs - about how anachronistic and antiquated. And Dick Ebersol has been called every name in the book, the head of NBC Sports, for doing this kind of tape delaying.

But the proof, at the end of the day, is in the pudding. And the Internet anger represents just a small slice of the audience. And most people do want to get home after work, switch on the TV and see tape-delayed carefully crafted programing.

NEARY: No, I've actually been irritated a couple of times when I did exactly what I just said, which is to switch on the Internet and I've seen the result and I thought oh, shoot, now I've seen it. But, you know, I've still gone home and watched it.

But let me get back to the drama again for a moment, Dave, because I wanted to ask you about something specifically that I was interested in and that was, you know, I read that the South Korean who won the first short speed skating competition, he said he could barely contain his anger standing on the podium with Apolo Ohno. And this was after a race where the two South Koreans crashed into each other. I mean, I saw it and it didn't look to me like Ohno caused it in any way. So where is all that anger coming from?

Mr. ZIRIN: Right. I mean a lot of these sports they do come down, particularly Winter Sports, we don't have the greatest understanding of them. Like most people watch the luge, for example, and think it's just somebody lying down on a sled and going on a sort of a great adventure fun ride. But there's a tremendous amount of precision and athleticism in training that goes in to every movement. So even me, as someone who studies this stuff, don't feel qualified to say whether or not Ohno did something that should have engendered that kind of anger.

But I really think that a lot of the anger comes from the fact that sportsmanship has really been bled out of this process because of the money involved, because of the corporate backing that's so necessary for these athletes to even make it to this high a level, that the stakes are just incredibly high. And, I think, I don't blame this for it, but certainly the growth and explosion of extreme sports...

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. ZIRIN: And people think everything from the halfpipe up to the aerial skiing and whatnot, it's infected every other aspect of winter sports, where more traditional sports like luge or speed skating, there's this pressure for speed, speed, speed and spectacle, spectacle, spectacle. Everything has to look like a Mountain Dew ad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And with that comes a tremendous amount of - I mean, it really shouldn't produce anger, but certainly a level of competitive zeal that overrides sportsmanship.

NEARY: Yeah. And then returning to the ice for a moment, Lisa, we have to talk about those ice dancing costumes that caused so much controversy at these Olympics. The, you know, the aboriginal costumes are the ones that caused all the controversy. But if you look at the ice dancing at all, you notice that that wasn't the only costume that seemed over the top.

Ms. MORAES: No, there was one - I don't remember who it was - one of the NBC sports commentators who said of another couple that their costumes said here is the line and now we are going to go way over it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORAES: The costumes, you know, ice dancing costumes are just always breathtakingly beautiful or breathtakingly politically incorrect. Everything about ice dancing is loud and...

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. MORAES: ...this year that seems to particularly include the costumes.

NEARY: And NBC really played that up in promoting ice dancing. I mean the - do you think some of the sort of promotion for ice dancing were a little over the top?

Ms. MORAES: Absolutely, and that is what NBC does better than any network anywhere. Their marketing and promo departments - they do it in primetime every night. They used to do it with "Dateline." Watch this episode of "Dateline" or your children may die. Watch this episode of "Dateline" or - they would scare people into watching "Dateline," which is how it became such an enormous rating success back in the day.

Mr. ZIRIN: And yet they couldn't scare people to watch Jay Leno.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORAES: Is it for real?

NEARY: And now, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I am speaking with columnist Lisa de Moraes and David Zirin.

You know, Dave, I guess figure skating really always provides some of these theatrics at the Olympics, but what about some of the other competition? What are some of the other drama that's been going on that maybe people aren't as aware of?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, the thing that we haven't discussed yet but which fits so well into this is the death that opened the games...

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. ZIRIN: ...of Nodar Kumaritashvili because Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luge slider, what preceded his death was the fact that Canada had this campaign - and this goes into everything we're talking about with regards to sportsmanship and fair play. They had a campaign called the Own the Podium campaign. And when I was in Vancouver, that's what everybody was talking about. It's the Own the Podium campaign.

And part of the Own the Podium campaign - it meant that Canada was going to sweep the medals at their own Olympics. But part of it was preventing other luge sliders from practicing on the run at Whistler, even though it had been recognized for over a year as being the fastest track ever produced. So, Nodar, for example, who died, he got one tenth of the practice runs as the Canadian luge sliders.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZIRIN: And then he dies and then very quickly, the IOC and NBC have made sure that we're never to talk about this again. Steve Capus, the head of NBC News, issued a directive to his news department and NBC Sports that they were not to show replays of that for the remainder of the games. It hasn't been remarked upon. When in reality, it's very connected to everything we're talking about here, about winning, even becoming more important than really life or death.

NEARY: Yeah. What do you think about that, Lisa? I mean, have you noticed that - the absence that Dave is speaking about of any discussion of that and how did that fit into NBC's coverage from your perspective?

Ms. MORAES: You know, they were accused of covering it too much at the outset by having replayed. All the networks put it on their evening newscast that day. And then NBC re-ran it before they telecast the opening ceremonies. They were accused of playing it too much. And then - I absolutely agree that it was -there has been - in the coverage I watched, there has been no discussion of it since. That is not much different than what has happened in past Olympics that NBC has covered.

NBC has had exclusive rights to both the summer and the winter games for some time now in the United States. And when there was some controversy at the Sydney Olympics - I think it was about doping - that NBC took a lot of grief for the fact that their news operation was not covering it. It was the other networks whose news operations were covering what was going on.

And if you were only watching NBC, you did not know that this is going on. This has been - NBC, when they are covering this, it is about boosterism. And not just being a booster of the games, being a booster of the numbers.

NEARY: Yeah. And, Dave, I just have to ask you, you blasted Christopher Hitchens, the writer, for saying that the Olympic Games brought out the worst in us. Based on some of what we've been saying, does he have a point?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, certainly it speaks to some of the worst angels of our nature at times, but I don't feel like that that's something intrinsically is a part of the Olympics. I put a ton of that on the International Olympic Committee and how they run the Olympics, selling the games to the highest bidder, invading cities with the Olympic Games. That's more where I see that the Olympics provide a breath of fresh air in the sports world that puts women at the front instead of at the back in terms of stars. And I think that's something important.

NEARY: Well, thanks to both of you for joining us. Lisa de Moraes is a columnist for The Washington Post. She joined us from her office in Los Angeles. Dave Zirin writes for The Nation and at edgeofsports.com and he joins us from our studio here in Washington. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. ZIRIN: Thank you.

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