What NBC Isn't Telling Us About the Olympics
This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on February 13th, 2014.
We’ve already seen a number of inspiring stories from the Olympics. Snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg wins the gold after landing a trick he’d never even tried before. Erin Hamlin becomes the first American to bring home an Olympic medal in individual luge. Women compete in ski jumping for the first time in Olympic history.
We are familiar with these stories because NBC tells them often. The Olympic Games wouldn’t be complete without stories of triumph. After all, it is the kind of stuff that inspires adults and gets kids to dream. But when NBC loads primetime with stories about medals and victory, we don’t see the whole picture.
Sure, it is absolutely important to see stories of triumph, but when that’s all we see, we miss some of the most important messages of all: Before every win, there are hundreds of losses. Behind every medal, there are years of challenges. And every trip to the Olympics is possible not just because of a dream, but because the athlete picked herself up and dusted herself off…daily.
To me, the most compelling storylines are the ones that take place outside of the medal count. Take Kikkan Randall, for instance, a world champion cross-country skier and a favorite to win the Olympic freestyle sprint. She was out-lunged by a competitor in the quarterfinal and failed to advance to the next round by a margin of five-hundredths of a second. Kikkan’s hopes for an individual medal were dashed before she really even had a chance to get going.
Within minutes of her stunned passage through the media mixed zone, however, Kikkan demonstrated the class she’s become known for. There she was, at the start house, cheering on her teammate. Smiling.
The debut of women’s ski jumping in the Sochi Olympics was a victory for women’s sports. The number of years it took for women’s ski jumping to become an Olympic sport is staggering, especially considering the fact that ski jumping is one of the oldest winter sports around, and that women can jump just as far as the men.
There have been some wonderful news stories over the last few days honoring the fact that women are finally jumping in the Olympics. Celebrating the feat is necessary, but we also shouldn’t fail to recognize what it took to make it all possible.
The women jumpers filed a petition with the International Olympic Committee every year starting in 1998, and were denied every time. They filed a lawsuit to compete in the 2010 Olympics, but they lost that too after an official from the International Ski Federation testified that ski jumping is “not appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
Victory never comes without a cost. With every dream comes pain, setbacks, and sacrifice. Women are jumping in the Olympics because a few brave women fought for it.
Finally, it was hard to miss the fanfare around Shaun White’s failure to medal in the snowboard halfpipe. As if it was fair to expect Shaun to win a third straight gold medal in the first place, the media carried on to treat his shortfall like an anomaly and turned it into a worldwide storyline.
Newsflash: Shaun White is human. It is possible for him to have an off-day. It’s too bad for him that it happened during the Olympics, but honestly, in the grand scheme of life, it’s great. The kids watching at home saw something other than triumphant victory. They saw that their role-model makes mistakes and falls short, just like they do. They saw that their role-model dusts himself off and congratulates the winner, just like they should.
Literally hundreds of athletes will leave Sochi without an Olympic medal around their neck, but we don’t hear their story. As much as NBC plugs the podium finishes and inspirational stories, don’t forget that for every win we see, there’s an athlete who failed to qualify but summons a gracious smile. There’s an athlete who overcame so many obstacles just to get to Sochi, that simply being there is a victory in itself. And there’s an athlete who just plain didn’t perform to her ability, but she dusts herself off and gives the winner a hug despite her disappointment.
It may never be a headline, but to me, that’s Olympic strength. That’s inspiring.