NBC and the Slighted Sports

NBC's decision not to telecast live competition in 11 sports at the Atlanta Olympics is disappointing but predictable.

The "blacked out" sports, representing fully one-third of the Games, include archery, team handball, softball, badminton, fencing, and the modern pentathlon.

What a shame.

Because of that decision, American television viewers will be denied the opportunity to see live coverage of several sports that are among the most popular in the world. The archers and modern pentathletes can speak for themselves. My own bias is for badminton. Yes, badminton. I have had a lifelong love affair with badminton, and my feelings on this point are admittedly passionate.

Having officiated at world championship badminton events in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, where wildly enthusiastic crowds of more than 15,000 watch some of the world's most highly trained and skilled athletes compete, I know what American TV viewers will be missing.

This is not a new issue for badminton. We are accustomed to such slights. I am always bemused by the misinformed belief that "real athletes" don't play badminton. This is based largely on a public perception of badminton as a backyard sport that little children play with plastic birdies and makeshift boundaries. How ironic that "beach volleyball" will have Olympic air time on NBC.

Erasing these misperceptions about badminton is an ongoing challenge. But perhaps it helps to recall that during the 1972 Munich Olympics, the East German Olympic team trainer proclaimed Rudy Hartono as the finest trained athlete in the Games.

Who is Rudy Hartono? Back then he was the world's badminton champion. Badminton is not only a sport that millions of people care about, but its participants are among the finest athletes in the world.

Predictably, NBC will show the Olympic tennis competition. I certainly admire tennis players. I enjoy watching a good match and even play the game. However, for sheer end-to-end, nonstop action, there is no contest between tennis and badminton.

But the US television blackout is part of a larger issue. One of the beauties of the Olympics has always been that the Games permit us, every four years, to be introduced to or reacquainted with competitions that are otherwise overshadowed by the business of professional sports that dominate American culture. By choosing to ignore a handful of these sports, NBC is doing its viewers a disservice.

Instead, we will see prerecorded features about individual athletes, often focusing on the sacrifices they or their families have made to get to this highest level of competition. These "one-on-one" segments, as NBC labels them, are often entertaining and informative. I have no doubt that they are ratings winners.

My argument is not that these canned fillers should be eliminated. Rather, maybe this part of the coverage might be cut by even a quarter, in order to show viewers a live glimpse of sports that Americans might have an opportunity to see only during the Olympics. The producers would be serving an important educational function.

Who knows? They might actually be surprised by the results. In badminton's case, I would wager that, given a chance to see even a portion of a world-class match, American viewers will find the sport as compelling as the rest of the world does.

*R. Stanton Hales is president of The College of Wooster. He is a former US badminton champion who serves on the Council of the International Badminton Federation and is a deputy referee for the Olympic badminton competition in Atlanta.

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