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Bring on the bathos

On TV, the Olympics isn't about sports but real-life drama. Get set to meet 1,500 athletes you really care about.

August 08, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

By the standards of the modern Olympic Games, American diver Kimiko Hirai Soldati is the perfect athlete. She has visible scars from sports-related surgeries. She has had a major career setback -- the knee surgery left her unable to continue to compete in her first love, gymnastics. She has known personal adversity -- her mother died after a long battle with breast cancer when Soldati was just 17; she wears her mother's wedding ring whenever she dives.

Her father was born in an internment camp in Idaho, making the family's patriotism even more poignant for being hard-won. And should she win at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, she would be, at the advanced age of 30, the oldest U.S. female diver to win a medal.

No matter what her diving scores, Soldati is already a favorite for the gold in the Personal Narrative Event.

In the last 10 years, the Olympic narrative has changed. In previous decades, the network broadcasting the event would focus on the stories of a few athletes, highlighting the immense dedication and sacrifice it takes to be an Olympian -- the 8-year-old girl getting up at 4 in the morning to go skating, the young man who gave up Little League so he could keep running.

More recent Games seemed to have three-hankie back stories for every competitor, chock-full of incredibly personal details -- the loss of friends and family, bouts with cancer and other illnesses, poverty and misspent youth, even issues of addiction and physical abuse.

In 2002, there was snowboarder Chris Klug, who underwent a liver transplant 18 months before the Games; Apolo Anton Ohno, a latchkey kid turned bad boy who cleaned up his act to become a short-track skater; and Hungarian bobsledder Ildiko Strehli, a breast-cancer survivor who painted a pink ribbon on the side of her sled.

Two years before, there was Terence Parkin, a South African swimmer who is deaf, and figure skater Diana Munz, who had broken her back a year earlier.

The sadder, the better

Critics have begun deriding the deluge of such stories with headlines like "The Crying Games" and wondering whether the sports are taking a backseat to the pathos. But the soap-operatic details are not going to decrease any time soon -- they are the bait with which NBC hopes to draw in enough non-sports fans to boost ratings to the record levels of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Multiple personal features are also a logistical necessity -- NBC will be providing 1,200 hours of coverage in Athens starting Friday; there isn't a commentary team in the world that can fill that kind of time. So there will be plenty of cue-strings-type stories like Soldati's and that of modern pentathlete Anita Allen, a West Pointer who has competed wearing an armband bearing the name of a close friend killed in Iraq.

"Each year, the narrative has moved farther and farther away from 'He's a very hard-working wrestler,' " says David Shields, author of "Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine." "Now it seems almost as if the sport hardly matters. We can't wait to segue to the half-hour about the pill-popping mom, the abusive stepfather, the cancer. And, 'Oh, yeah, she stuck a 10 on the unevens.' "

NBC, which has broadcast the Summer Olympics since 1988, is not at all apologetic about its attempts to reveal the heart-wrenching backgrounds.

"The mantra is 'find the golden nugget,' find out something about these people that no one else knows," says Molly Solomon, coordinating producer of NBC's Olympic coverage, who is juggling 1,500 athlete bios in preparation for Athens. "Most of these sports are never seen on television, so we need to find the stories to help people understand these athletes, to give them a reason to root for them."

Blame, or credit, ABC news legend Roone Arledge with his "Up Close and Personal" features in the 1960s. Blame, or credit, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama that made the women's skating final at the 1994 Winter Olympics the sixth-highest-rated program in U.S. television history. Blame, or credit, a culture of personal revelation and an exploding sports media that require endless commentary on events that last less than five minutes and live-air coverage of those that last five hours.

At NBC, a team of three researchers put together a 7,000-page, nine-volume manual that covers every sport. For two years, they traveled to 16 countries, attending world and national championships and inviting athletes to have a seat and tell them their life stories.

Solomon, who started at NBC as a researcher in 1992, says she is astonished by how much these biographies have grown in number and depth in the last 10 years.

"In the '90s, the information available multiplied," she says. "Through the Internet but also in general coverage. When I started, there wasn't much out there but Sports Illustrated. Now the coverage is tremendous -- we will be showing 1,200 hours of it, and so you need to have more stories."

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