Wednesday, August 13, 2008

NBC Lets Karoly Vent about Chinese Gymnasts So No One Else Has To

Beyond That, Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word About Host Country Gaming the Competition
Bob Costas seems more than reasonably entertained when Bela Karolyi is sitting alongside him in the studio to comment on the goings-on at the Olympics gymnastics competition.
And why not? Karolyi is never boring. His avuncular, broken-English routine would be condemned as a stereotype if it wasn't him doing it.
Karolyi (above right) and his wife Marta, the U.S. national team coordinator, have not been shy in accusing the Chinese, as other media reports have averred is a possiblity, of putting underage gymnasts on the floor. Those little pixies doing impossible twists on the vault and melting 18,000 hearts in the National Stadium with a virtuouso performance on the uneven bars are all at least 16?
Karolyi said no, when Costas asked him last night.
But Costas, constrained by the need to get back to live coverage, didn't follow up. And not once have I heard any of the three broadcasters covering gymnastics even allude to the controversy.
One could argue that's the right approach. Focus on the drama unfolding, especially in a tight competition between the U.S. and China. That was indeed the main story, but not the only one. To simply report on the merits of the routines meant Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel are doing their jobs in a self-imposed vacuum. The pictures tell the story of a Chinese team whose average height is 4-feet-9 and weighs 77 pounds.
If they really are 16 -- as the passports accepted by the IOC claim -- then what does that say about the Chinese gymnastics program and why the U.S. women as well as those from the European teams look diametrically different? How? Why? The NBC crew offers no answers.
Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports say the Karolyis should quit whining about the Chinese, especially since it was Bela who coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic perfection in 1976 -- at the tender age of 14. Wetzel then takes a cheap shot at the Karolyis for implying they'd want nothing more than to return to the bad old days.
Good or bad, though, 14 was allowed in Montreal. It's not in Beijing. But here we watched pixie after pixie do enough right to win gold over the Americans.
And about those passports. It's hardly a stretch of the imagination to think the Chinese would do whatever it took to grab first on their home turf, including passports that cooked up some numbers. After all, they've done that before, as Juliet Macur reported in The New York Times:

Yang Yun won two bronze medals at the 2000 Sydney Games, in the uneven bars and as a member of the Chinese team. The United States team finished fourth.
Afterward, Yang said on state-run television that she was 14 when she competed at the Games. A Hunan Province sports administration report confirmed that.
“The medal was supposed to be ours, and we should be given it,” said Karolyi, the coach of the 2000 United States team, referring to the bronze medal in the team event.

This could all have been a bad case of the International Olympic Committee not wanting to stoke a controversy and get the Chinese in a lather on the eve of the games, which are meant to be a lucrative showcase for the IOC and Beijing alike.
But that doesn't mean NBC -- despite a rights payment of nearly $900 million -- needs to be complicit. However, the silence over the Chinese gymnasts, with the exception of Karolyi's continual fulminating on the topic -- is rather deafening at this point.
As the Washington Post's Paul Farhi notes, NBC is making a careful -- too careful -- distinction between news and sports. Which is a shame, when very often at the Olympics they are one and the same.

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