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Call it anything but 'coverage'

Prime-time handling of the Games has never been so, um, revealing.

August 23, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Lately, everything on TV looks like soft-core porn to me. The local news, the Weather Channel (it has to do with the formation of a hurricane), any given shampoo commercial.

Now it's the Olympics, or "the Games of the 28th Olympiad," as I keep hearing NBC broadcaster Bob Costas intone, which well into Week One put on a little mood lighting and got busy.

Once a competition among nations, the Games have added tart to tradition. Or, at least, that's the message NBC is stealthily conveying to viewers of the prime-time Games. It's a strategy that must have been designed to lure men who would otherwise flip to a preseason NFL game. Hey, guys, I know track and field's a snooze, but come into our tent: We have women on trampolines and beach -- beach! -- volleyball. One of the American players is named Misty May. The old Soviet bloc, with its dour, mannish female athletes? Haven't you heard, communism is dead. See Misty jump. Misty will be onstage in 14 minutes, just as soon as the men's 100-meter freestyle ends. In the meantime, here's a sexy photo of her.

Things got positively weird during the women's gymnastics coverage. This is an odd sport to begin with, involving hardened, miserable-looking girl-children in full makeup, with glitter on their faces.

On Wednesday night, NBC's Al Trautwig offered a segment on the Romanian team, informing us that back home the gymnasts live a life of Romanian deprivation, housed together in a remote village where they train under the watchful eye of a sullen man with a romantically evil name -- Octavian Bellu.

But wait, the story gets Cinemax: Several members of the team had gone bad, gymnastics style, accepting $40,000 each to appear in a "nude Japanese gymnastics video."

Trautwig didn't elaborate; he just threw out the tantalizing phrase "nude Japanese gymnastics video" and moved on, NBC no doubt hoping the men watching at home would take that notion and run with it. (The gymnasts had, indeed, performed some basic routines in the nude for a Japanese DVD in 2002.)

NBC's hit-and-run sexual innuendo continued when long-legged Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina was getting ready to vault. Khorkina's face frozen in concentration, the moment tense, Trautwig said: "Loves to model, been in some magazines, some of dubious taste."

"Very intricate vault here," commentator Tim Daggett cut in.

That same night a segment on U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard juxtaposed a clip of her clutching a teddy bear at the Summer Games eight years ago in Atlanta, when she was 14, and a shot of her now, fully grown and posed seductively by a swimming pool.

Beard is on the cover of the September issue of FHM, where she appears in a steamy spread with four other athletes.

The subliminal, or not so subliminal, messages must have had their effect; by Saturday afternoon I found myself watching the track and field coverage with what has become Olympics reference material: Playboy. Here, in the September issue, you'll find eight female Olympians posed nude, including cover girl Amy Acuff, an American high jumper, and swimmer Haley Clark, whose turn-ons are the 100-meter backstroke and political non sequiturs. "People aren't comfortable with themselves," she is quoted as saying above her spread. "I am. I'm a freak. I vote Republican, I worship Martha Stewart, and I don't mind being naked."

The Athens Olympic organizing committee tried to ban Playboy from Greek newsstands to no avail. "They wanted to feature some of the Olympic athletes in a very tasteful, artful way," Acuff said on the "Today" show last week. "And, you know, I have no problem with that. I think the human body is incredible and a really magnificent machine."

The men, to be sure, don't have to field these kinds of questions. When Michael Phelps appeared in-studio in Athens for a sit-down interview with Costas Friday night, he was dressed like he'd just gotten out of the pool -- in shorts and warm-up jacket, his hair un-moussed. But when female swimmer Natalie Coughlin sat down with Costas the next night, she was fully made-up, in a miniskirt and slinky black top, the taut-muscled athlete now appearing as a model-attractive woman, which is what passes for versatility in our culture.

Amid this, NBC has sought to portray these Games as a watershed for women's participation in the Olympics, with Costas reporting in an upbeat tone that "right around 40%" of the athletes in the Athens Games are female. These Games, the implication goes, illustrate the spread of women's rights even in the most restrictive countries. That sounds heartening on the sofa at home, here in the land of Playboy and FHM, but it's also the kind of bluster the Olympics has long brought out in its TV broadcasters.

To its credit, the network did report Saturday night, however briefly, on a Pakistani swimmer allowed to compete over the objection of the country's mullahs, and on an Iraqi track athlete who was the first woman to compete for that country in its 56-year Olympics history. Still, in the segment, NBC reporter Jimmy Roberts observed that five of the delegations at this year's Games didn't send a single female athlete and that while the Olympics have presented their share of "strong, successful, prominent women," "the fairer sex hasn't always enjoyed the fairest treatment through time."

Here at the Games of the 28th Olympiad, fairness is catching up. OK, in some countries women can't leave home without covering their bodies from head to toe.

But look how far the rest of the world has evolved -- all the way down to no clothes on at all. "I'm not doing brain surgery," Acuff told Playboy, in the grand tradition of the Games. "I'm jumping over a stick."

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