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Why TV's Olympics differed from the real Olympics

By RUSHWORTH M. KIDDER / August 13, 1984



By the time I applied for Olympic press credentials, there were already more journalists than athletes signed up. So, like 80 million other Americans, I watched the games on ABC television.

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Now, I don't mean to carp. Visually, ABC did magnificently. Its camera crews were everywhere, finding wonderful angles for the various events. Their slow-motion shots were delightful.

Why, then, the curious dissatisfaction which I and many other viewers experienced - this lurking sense that the TV version of the games was so very different from the games themselves?

Part of it, I think, arose from the way ABC selected its events. It chose the thrill-a-minute approach. Plucking moments out of context, it lurched from event to event in a weird megathlon of knockouts followed by long jumps interrupted by slam-dunks.

Sports events themselves, of course, are not like that. They are all of a piece. They all involve some sort of waiting - during timeouts, or between heats or matches. Like theater or ballet productions, they develop rhythms of their own, where crescendoes follow periods of quiet. And they build expectations, in which the serendipitous becomes truly surprising, the victory or defeat truly moving. To watch the TV version, however, was to gorge on a smorgasbord of desserts: sweetness and fluff aplenty, but thin on nourishment. In the end, it left little room for any deep appreciation of the event itself.

A more serious problem concerned ABC's unabashedly Yankee chauvinism. Late in the first week of the games, the network drew a rebuke from Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, for overplaying those events that Americans were favored to win. At the same time, ABC underplayed the rich mix of competing countries - which misrepresented the internationality of the games.

Again, the Olympics were not like that. Americans made up only some 600 of the roughly 7,000 athletes - something you would not have guessed by watching the TV version. Even such Yankee boosterism, however, might have been less noticeable but for the sadly jingoistic cliches of some of the TV commentators. ''He must have been into the sake last night,'' quipped one sportscaster in describing a Japanese gymnast after a difficult exercise. He also referred to a gymnast from Dijon, France, as ''the man from Mustardville.''

Such lapses of taste point to the gulf between the purpose of the games (to set international standards of excellence) and the purpose of ABC television (to entertain American audiences). That gulf left some viewers with a nagging sense of having been manipulated. ''Am I really being shown the best?'' they asked. ''Am I being informed, or merely propagandized?''

Overzealous patriotism? Perhaps. But there's a deeper flaw here: the lack of a serious commitment by the network to verbal (as opposed to visual) skills. True, ABC had plenty of former gold-medalists on hand as specialist commentators. They know their sports well. Yet the verbal side was simply no match for the visual. Some commentators overwhelmed us with detail. Others seemed transfixed by medical records. And still others sank into repetition, banality, and squeals.

Fortunately the 1988 Olympics in South Korea are four years away. This year, ABC tried to take its gold-medal sports experts and turn them into skilled commentators. Next time, it might consider taking world-class wordsmiths and teaching them to comment on the fine points of sports.