Soft. Smarmy. Self-congratulatory. No, not Oprah. I'm talking about TV coverage of the 2000 Olympics. NBC's maudlin programming has reached a new low in sports journalism, but the gold medal for worst media performance goes to the entire Team U.S.A. for hyping racial politics over athletic excellence.
Well before he captured the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle last week, the media hounded U.S. swimmer Anthony Ervin about his racial background. Hundreds of newspaper stories noted that Ervin's father is "three-quarters black and one-quarter Native American" and that "his mother is white." Journalists referred to the 19-year-old, multiracial swimmer as "African American." TV reporters who couldn't care less about Ervin's achievements asked repeatedly how it feels to be the first black American to make a U.S. Olympic swim team.
Someone needs to send these up-close-and-personal leeches on a one-way trip to the Australian outback. A young man clinches the gold medal in a history-setting tie with his American teammate, and all the press wants to do is analyze what percentage of his blood is nonwhite. The architects of apartheid and the despicable "one-drop rule" would be proud.
With the grace and modesty of a true champion, Ervin stood up to the race-mongers in the media: "I don't really think about it ... being the first of this or the first of that. I just go out there and try to do the best for myself." Ervin patiently explained that he refuses to check off a single box on government forms asking his race. Pestered by a USA Today columnist who wanted to know his thoughts on being a role model for black children, Ervin sighed: "Hopefully, I can be a role model for just about anybody, whether they're black or white or brown."
Ervin's parents are equally exasperated. Playing up his race "minimizes what he's accomplished," his mother noted. "Call him African American, call him Native American, call him Italian American, call him Jewish American. He's still an American, no matter how you slice it," Ervin's father added.
Only the American media, with its zeal for race-based affirmative action and constant ethnic categorizing, would subject one of our nation's athletic heroes to such relentless harassment over his skin color. The Paris media don't refer to track star Marie-Jose Perec as "African French." She's just French. London sportswriters don't call veteran hurdler Colin Jackson "African British." He's just British. Ervin's plea for equal treatment, however, has fallen on deaf ears. "I don't think of myself as a race," Ervin insisted to one reporter. "I'm just Anthony."
Australian Aboriginal Cathy Freeman, who won the gold medal in the 400-meter race, has perpetuated the most racialized media coverage of the Games. We are reminded at every pause of the unjust treatment of Freeman's people two generations ago. But our worldly reporters are silent on athletes from countries such as Rwanda, where recent tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis led to mass genocide while President Clinton and the United Nations sat by. Or Zimbabwe, where racial hatred championed by President Robert Mugabe has led to theft, rape, and murder of scores of white farmers this year.
NBC's singling out of politically correct athletes is atrociously patronizing. In one of its "Defining Moment" segments, the network highlighted the "heartwarming" story of Eric Moussambani, a black swimmer from Equatorial New Guinea who struggled to complete his 100-meter freestyle heat. On the "Today Show," sports filmmaker Bud Greenspan said it was "one of the cutest things" he had ever seen. Cute? Moussambani almost drowned.
He did not meet the qualifying time, but was allowed to compete under a special program for underdeveloped countries. Moussambani's sympathizers said his flailing performance embodied Olympic values. But how does lowering the standards for some athletes reflect the spirit of colorblind competition?
Olympic glory is no longer for the faster, higher, and stronger, but for the slower, lower, and weaker of the world.
Note: In my column last week on Texas TV anchorman Mike Snyder's lawsuit against prominent media ethics organizations and experts, I mischaracterized the role of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. While a Poynter staff member co-wrote the offending textbook containing false statements and fake quotes attributed to Snyder, and while Poynter sold and distributed free copies of the textbook, the institute had no role in publishing the book. The Society of Professional Journalists will pay the $18,000 in legal costs incurred by Snyder.