Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Million Little Human Interest Stories

When Oprah Winfrey berated James Frey on national television for including exaggerations and falsehoods in his supposed memoir, many Americans shared her outrage. Although some suggested that Frey deserved credit for being able to write an engrossing book that gave readers what they wanted to read, critics were quick to point out that Frey’s story dealt with the real issues of addiction and recovery, and those who were inspired by his work were harmed greatly by his deception.

After watching two weeks of NBC’s coverage of the Torino Olympics, I’m starting to think that perhaps Oprah needs to have a little talk with Bob Costas and Jimmy Roberts!

As a result of the public’s desire for heart-tugging stories of athletes’ triumphing over unimaginable adversity, Olympic coverage has gradually shifted toward more so-called “human interest” stories, and less actual competition. With the notable exception of ice skating, where every “twizzle” is thoroughly dissected, coverage of most events includes only the American athletes, medal winners from other countries, and any competitor who can possibly be portrayed as a tragic hero!

But how many times must we hear of athletes growing up with debilitating diseases, overcoming depression or addiction, rising from near homelessness, surviving deaths of relatives with cancer, strokes, heart attacks, or freakish natural disasters? Surely there are many competitors out there worthy of attention who simply succeed, though ability and hard work, without having to overcome personal tragedy.

While I can only speculate on the level of truth in many of these stories, I had the chance to view one of the many “human interest" stories about an athlete with whom I have some familiarity, having briefly met her and her family and being close friends with another member of her team. The story was, in my opinion, exaggerated wildly for maximum dramatic effect – for no other reason than to deliver more of what people want to hear (at least when they have to hear about non-American athletes!)

Janica Kostelic, the brilliant Croatian skier, is one of the most decorated female athletes in Olympic history. Her ability to overcome multiple injuries and return stronger each time should have been inspirational enough. But NBC, in order to ratchet up the sympathy factor to 11, insisted on characterizing her as coming from abject poverty in a war torn country. This is a heart-wrenching stereotype, but not really true. While NBC chose to show the unlikely image of Kostelic and her brother Ivica carrying their skis past a bombed out building, the reality is that her family lives in a part of Croatia that was relatively unaffected by the war, and nearly all of her training takes place outside of Croatia.

While her upbringing may seem like poverty to the average American skier in Aspen or Heavenly Valley, it was probably not much different from that of many other athletes whose parents had to make sacrifices to facilitate their training at a young age, but who always had food on the table and a roof over their heads. According to NBC, she was forced by poverty to sell her old skis to finance her training. Oh, the horror of not having the luxury of keeping stacks and stacks of old skis in the garage!

In short, NBC’s coverage, while giving people more and more of what they want to hear, distorts the perception of what it takes to be a successful athlete. Children who watch the Olympics and aspire to compete are likely to think that they can only follow in the footsteps of their heroes if they suffer the tragedies and hardships that are the central focus of nearly every event. Not unlike readers of Frey’s book who struggle with their own demons while thinking his story is a real-life example of how to overcome them. Just two sides of the same fake coin!


  1. Giraffe5:21 PM

    I'm sure Janeca Kostelic was not too happy with how the press chose to tell her story. It was terrific that she did so well, after all her hard training. We really do need to stop and think about everything we read.
    What is fact and what is fiction.

  2. I had mixed feelings about this post.

    On the one hand, it was clear that there was some manipulation going on in order to make the athletes' stories as compelling as possible. On the other hand, I'm sure many of these stories are (at least partially) true.

    Janica is from a country that was at war during her lifetime. But most of the people I know in Croatia lived through the war like most Americans lived through Hurricane Katrina. Admittedly, its a smaller country so they were closer to it than, say, Californians were to Katrina, but that's no reason to stereotype.

    I don't want to downplay the hardships of others, but at the same time, when I watch the Olympics, I want to see the competition and not just hear about a few athletes.

    Then again, maybe I'm just ticked off that the person I know who was in the Olympics, is not American, finished 15th, and has no horrible story to tell - so there was no chance that I would get to watch her on TV!