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How the media affects the Olympics

Published: Saturday, August 21, 2004

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010

While I was watching the Olympics sporadically over the last week, I became disturbed when the United State’s performance was seen as a disappointment by some national reporters. How could a country’s performance that as of Wednesday night had a strong hold on the race for most medals be considered disappointing? The answer, the national media provided the United States team with unfair expectations, prior to the games. First, take Michael Phelps’ quest to break the legendary Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Even before the U.S. trials in early July, talk of Phelps potentially challenging Spitz’s record was a topic of conversation amongst sports fans. After qualifying for all six of his individual events at the trials though (Phelps dropped from the 200 Backstroke), the media began to put extreme pressure on Phelps. Including the three relays that he was expected to race in, Phelps was not only supposed to contend, but also win eight gold medals. In Phelps second race (the 4 x 100 meter relay) lead off swimmer Ian Crocker got off to a horrific start, and the US had to settle for bronze. The following day, Phelps was denied gold again by two of the best swimmers in the world, Ian Thorpe and Pieter Van Den Hoogenenband. Despite not being able to break Spitz’s record, Phelps can still accomplish something that no other athlete has ever been able to; win eight medals in the same Olympics. However, the national media seems to have overlooked this, because he will not break Spitz’s record. Another perfect example of the national media’s unrealistic expectations was the US Women’s Gymnastics Team. Despite both Romania and Russia posing strong threats to the US, a gold medal was not only expected, but viewed as a virtual sure thing. Part of the reasoning for the lofty expectations was the fact that the US had not lost an international competition since 2002, including last year’s world championships. Despite a solid performance, the Americans had to settle for silver, being beaten by more than a half-point by the consistent Romanians. For an inexperienced US team, consisting of six women with not prior Olympic experience, a silver medal would normally be seen as a great accomplishment. However, because of the lofty expectations and their record over the last two years, the silver was seen by the media as a disappointment. Because of all of the focus on Phelps, and the Women’s Gymnastics Team, some very interesting story ideas were not covered accurately. A perfect example of a potential idea that was not written about very much (if at all) was the story of the Kirk sisters. Dana and her older sister Tara were the first set of sisters to successfully qualify for the same Olympics in the same sport, swimming. However, with Phelps’ potential taking up many of the swimming articles prior to and during the Olympics, the story of the Kirk sisters has gone virtually unnoticed. Another example of a great story that was very much overlooked prior to the Olympics was the US Men’s Gymnastics Team. Entering these Olympics, the men’s team had not won a medal in the team competition in 20 years. However, led by young superstar Paul Hamm, the men were in first place following the preliminary round of the competition. Even though he led the Americans to a silver medal two nights later in the team final, Hamm was not finished; he was determined to become the first male gymnast to win the gold medal in the Men’s Individual All-Around competition. Despite a terrible fall on the vault, Hamm recovered in his final two rotations to acheive his life long dream. So why did I choose this story for my first column as sports editor? While I was thinking about my new position and the responsibilities that it entailed, I contemplated what actually makes a good newspaper writer. One characteristic of a talented reporter is to be able to uncover stories that are both interesting and unique. Too many times, four or five different writers will write about the same event, producing nearly identical stories. Take the Paul Hamm story for example, if some of the writers who wrote about the potential of the Women’s Team had instead concentrated on Hamm and the Men’s Team, than that writer would have looked brilliant for uncovering a story that few others had. Secondly, a great writer must be able to find and write about different angles, that other writers will not. There is not a problem with four or five different writers covering the same sport, because there are so many different angles that exist within each sporting event. However, the writers must be creative enough to find all of the existing angles. Take the US Track and Field Team for example. After the US trials, most of the media attention was the fact that past Olympic stars Marion Jones and her husband Tim Montgomery had both failed to make the team in the 100 meters. Even though Jones did make the team in the long jump, the media questioned repeatedly as to why Jones and Montgomery had failed to even qualify for the Olympic Team. Because so much of the focus was on Jones and Montgomery, the amazing story of 18 year old young star Allyson Felix, who is a medal contender in the 200 meters, went predominately uncovered. Part of the problem with writing about sports that are not nationally popular yet, such as men’s gymnastics, is that most people will not read the articles at first. However, the quickest and easiest way to make a sport or event popular is to have established writers conduct several reports of that sport. Because the writer has already proven him/herself as a good reporter; than the readers will be more inclined to read their stories. Imagine if one of the more accomplished columnists had done a story of Paul Hamm and the Men’s Gymnastics Team. Maybe then, men’s gymnastics will begin to grow in popularity in the United States. Some reporters unintentionally forget what their main purpose is. The primary task of a journalist is to make the news interesting through their writing. Furthermore, it is the writer’s job to make sure that if a monumental event happened the night before, that it is adequately covered, no matter what sport it is.

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