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by Christopher R. Martin and Bettina Fabos

On a humid August night in Atlanta last summer, the 1996 Olympic Games came to a close. NBC Olympic anchor Bob Costas and his sidekick Dick Enberg turned to each other on camera and delivered their final lines of the 17-day broadcast. "As we say goodbye, Bob," a content Enberg concluded, "what I’ll remember was the triumphs were brilliant and the struggles were inspiring, and I can’t think of a greater assignment than to be able to put your hand on the pulse of athletic human drama. And we are very fortunate."

Costas and Enberg were fortunate. By the final night of their network’s 171.5-hour-coverage of the event, they clearly knew that NBC destroyed all other television competition for more than two weeks. As one newspaper article touted, NBC "won gold" and "crossed the finish line way, way ahead." One particular night, when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won a gold medal, NBC achieved the highest prime-time Olympic ratings since Sugar Ray Leonard’s title bout at the Montreal Olympics twenty years earlier.


Dick Enberg talks about the "pulse of athletic human drama" .  . .

. . . while Bob Costas listens (and gets teary-eyed?).

The trick to NBC’s rating success was delivering "the pulse of athletic human drama." However, the network’s touch was often nothing less than heavyhanded. To explain in NBC-esque terms, the network not only touched the pulse, but applied a tourniquet so the pulse was grossly evident to all, then shot the vein dangerously full of every melodramatic convention possible. We, the audience, were addicted, but it was a bad trip for many of us, too.

Thus, while the Olympics were extraordinarily successful from NBC’s corporate standpoint, many viewers, newspaper columnists and other commentators voiced strong dissatisfaction with the network’s coverage of the games. Complaints about excessive melodrama, deceptive time-delays, the narrow scope of events coverage, John Tesh’s overblown and inexperienced gymnastics analysis, and heavy commercialism at every possible level — from the actual sporting competition to its television broadcast — dogged the Atlanta Olympics. These objections were often sheepishly accompanied by admissions of regular viewing of NBC’s coverage.

Excessive melodrama might seem to be an oxymoron. A standard dictionary definition of melodrama explains it as "a dramatic form in which exaggeration of effect and emotion is produced." The television audience of the Olympics expects to "be there" for such memorable international sporting moments, full of emotion, weight, and meaning. That’s the draw of the Olympics: an underdog team’s victory, the emergence of a new star athlete, a record-shattering performance, the pageantry of international processionals. But, how much melodrama is too much? Is there a limit to what people will accept in the television packaging, especially when it’s of a non-fiction event with a lofty, idealistic history like the Olympics? Is there a point when the up-close-and-personals are too close?

Apparently, yes. NBC’s version of the 1996 Atlanta Games shows us how a network can go too far — with not a wink of postmodern self-reflexivity — in telling stories of "brilliant" triumphs and "inspiring" struggles. Or, as Time Magazine put it: "Is this the Olympics or One Life to Live?"

The Melodramatic History of the Olympics

NBC certainly didn’t invent melodrama at the Olympics. Similar charges were leveled against the television coverage of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, America’s last summer games before Atlanta. Of the LA Games, which also began an Olympic tradition of massive corporate sponsorship, media writer Hal Himmelstein said that "network sports divisions, in search of dramatic tension and pre-occupied with quantification of achievement and margins of victory, have turned the Olympiad and other world-championship amateur competitions into bloody battlegrounds on which national honor and even national legitimacy is won or lost."

Even before the advent of network television, the Olympics have been a scene for melodramatic hubris. The founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, embraced an idealistic theme of high modern drama, where universal athleticism and rationalism would overcome all societal ills. The initial battles over national honor and legitimacy in the modern Olympics were handled rather decorously — a matter of who did and didn’t get invitations to this feast of universal civilization. Thus, the modern Olympic movement began in Athens in 1896 with athletes almost entirely from Europe and North America, and included no women. [The 1981 film Chariots of Fire is an excellent dramatization of the aristocratic airs and ethnic exclusions of civilization at the 1924 Paris Games.] Over the course of the century, the Olympics have come to include women and representatives from nearly all nations, but the games and their ruling International Olympic Committee are still dominated by men from the world’s industrial powerhouses.

Olympic athletes are easily idealized as mythic competitors possessing agility, power, endurance, and humanity; the ingredients for any successful melodrama. But, for most of the first century of the modern Olympics, the Games’ true melodrama emerged from geopolitical relations. Under the myth of global harmony, we have celebrated the ritual competition of the GOOD (always us) versus the BAD (always them). In various years, it was the civilized western world versus the remaining uncivilized states; the freedom-loving, peaceful democracies versus the militaristic fascists; and the biggest distinction of them all, the capitalists versus the communists. These nationalistic, and purposefully melodramatic tensions were, until the 1990s, the antagonistic framework for the American Olympic media narrative, where our athletes labored to heroically uphold our ideological legitimacy.

Besides obsessive medal counting, American coverage took pains to privilege and identify with U.S. athletes, question the Soviet "system" of producing physically impressive but "socially deprived" athletes, and criticize suspicious Soviet Bloc training practices (especially those overly muscular East German women). The Olympics provided a melodramatic backdrop from which to negotiate Cold War ideologies. The last decade of the Cold War almost completely undermined the Olympic myth, though, as America skipped the 1980 Moscow Olympics (to penalize the Soviets for invading Afghanistan) and the Soviets snubbed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in a tit-for-tat boycott. Critics charged that the boycotts politicized the Olympics; in a way such criticisms demonstrated the strength of the myth of the Olympics as nonpolitical athletic meet.

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