Drugs and the Olympics

What if reporters imbedded with athletes during training?

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.

Fast breaks

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.

But in the main, the announcers NBC trotted out were solid, especially those who called the action from across the Atlantic Ocean. The Peacock’s announcers for a multitude of sports, from archery to equestrian to weightlifting, were actually in a Manhattan studio, working off the host broadcast feed. Describing the action off a monitor is tricky—without the ability to witness anything but what is captured by the cameras, broadcasters are working without the full range of information. It also becomes easy to forget the viewing audience consists mostly of people with little to no knowledge of the rules and history of the sport.

In that context, the likes of Craig Hummer and Jeff Bukantz on fencing, and Hummer and Rick McKinney on archery, stood out. They nicely described the goings on while never forgetting the sports they called were chock full of arcana utterly foreign to their viewers. Wolf Wigo was actually poolside in London for the water polo, but he, too, was outstanding. And Rowdy Gaines excelled in the high-profile swimming venue. His gig has always been ripe for criticism, but Gaines manages to balance sound technical commentary with excitement when appropriate, and he clearly is up to speed on all the swimmers, American and otherwise.

On the other hand, the gymnastics team of Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett, and Elfi Schlegel were, as usual, overwrought, jingoistic, and far too assuming of the casual fan’s understanding of the finer points of the routines they were watching.

One last Olympic thought: Before every Olympics, Brian Cazeneuve of Sports Illustrated attempts to predict every medal in all 302 events. It’s a bizarrely compelling undertaking, showing off both tremendous reportage and astounding nerdiness simultaneously. It’s also something of a goof, since what kind of maniac would actually bother to check his accuracy rate, anyway?

(Raises hand sheepishly.)

Yes, I went and looked up exactly how well Cazeneuve did at forecasting the medals. He did rather well, it seems, with the caveat being that I have nothing to grade him against. Of the 302 golds handed out, Cazeneuve correctly called 116 of them. In 14 events he got all three placings spot on, compared to 20 times in which he missed on all three. There were 29 events where he got the three top finishers right, just not in the proper order, and 136 more where he called two of the three. Overall, it may not have been an effort worthy of comparison to Usain Bolt’s performance (who Cazeneuve had finishing second in the 100 meters, a prediction he surely wants back), but more on the level of Jamaican female sprinter Shelly-Anne Fraser Pryce, who won the 100 and silvered in the 200, both finishes that Cazeneuve called correctly. Well done, sir.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , ,