The first week of the Olympics is traditionally given over to complaints about NBC’s coverage, as we discussed last week. By the second week, the quadrennial controversy shifts to speculation about the use of illegal drugs by the winners.
This time around, attention focused on two athletes: Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt, who treats the sprints like a Sunday jog around the lake yet still demolishes his competition and owns the world record at both 100 and 200 meters; and Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, who won gold in the women’s 400 meter individual medley. The 16-year-old’s final leg of that race was faster than the one turned in by US men’s gold medalist Ryan Lochte, which brought on an onslaught of coded j’accuse.
By the time the curtain dropped in London Sunday night, six athletes had been caught doping and booted from the Games. None were boldfaced names, much less a titan like Bolt or a wunderkind like Ye. But repeated violations throughout sports by what the Brits call “drug cheats” has made us all cynics. The presumption of guilt pervaded the Olympics, especially when records are shattered (records belonging to athletes that are hardly above suspicion themselves). While the emotions on display are genuine, and so powerful they sustain the popularity of the Games, little else feels real, from the cartoonish physiques to the indestructibility of the athletes. The Olympics have become like a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster, where suspension of disbelief is pivotal to enjoyment of the entertainment.
A restoration of reality to the Games may be a ship that has sailed over the horizon for good, but journalism could help remove some of the shadow that hovers over the fields of play. It would require a reversal in the natural order of the reportage, however. Media types who are so often unleashed to investigate suspicious athletes and find evidence of foul play would have to use their powers to “prove the negative,” and drill down into the training techniques of Olympians in order to clear their names.
Given that swimming, track and field, and the like are only in our consciousness every four years, this seems an unlikely use of dwindling journalistic resources. In essence, the reporter would have to embed himself with an athlete during the ramp-up to the Games. This may not be possible in places like China, for example, where the training programs are closely guarded, military-style operations.
But even if it were just one or two athletes who had success at the Games, and who had been judged “clean” by an unbiased reporter who witnessed the A-to-Z of the athlete’s training, it would go a long way toward removing the cloud of suspicion. Imagine if hurdler Lolo Jones, who opened up virtually every other aspect of her life to the media, had allowed a reporter to shadow her entire training cycle over the last six months or so? Or a megastar like Bolt or Michael Phelps, for that matter? If these athletes truly are ascending to such a high level of performance without assistance, why wouldn’t they want to have that fact borne out by a disinterested party?
The very nature of the Olympics, where wondrous athletes perform in virtual anonymity for years, out of sight and mind, then are thrust into the spotlight, fuels suspicion of performances that seem too good to be true.
It would be nice to have something concrete to counterbalance that (sadly) hard-earned skepticism.
The Olympics always provides odd assignments in the broadcast booth. Who can forget NFL veteran Bob Trumpy calling volleyball action back in the late 1980s? London was no different. It was jarring at first to hear legendary hockey play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick doing water polo, and longtime basketball announcer Mike Gorman struggle to work his thick New England accent around the Scandinavian sounds of team handball.