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OLYMPICS BLOG | Defending the celebrity machine

12:11 PM, Jul 25, 2012   |    comments
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On a recent podcast, ESPN's Bill Simmons and author Chuck Klosterman discussed how modern sports coverage relies very little on the actual coverage of sports.

And it's true. As I write this Tuesday afternoon, the top five stories on involve the Penn State fallout, Ichiro Suzuki's trade to the Yankees, NFL training camp, and a preview of Team USA's pre-Olympics exhibition against Spain. Not a single game recap in sight.

Klosterman then brought up the Olympics, saying how we develop a vested interest in large part from the overflowing amount of human-interest stories and athlete profiles that come our way before and during the Games. And why do TV networks do this? Because, Klosterman says, they realize the following mantra:

"Celebrity is what matters in America."

He goes on: "So, if you can turn these people into celebrities, it doesn't matter if they're dancers; it doesn't matter if they're decathletes. If you can turn them into somebody that someone can imagine being on the upper corner of US Weekly or something, that's all it takes."

Guilty as charged - to a point.

The Olympics, of course, are a peculiar event in America. They pop up once every four years, and 99% of the U.S. athletes toil in anonymity until the weeks - if not days - before they compete for the universally prized and respected gold, silver, and bronze medals. Most Americans will, of course, reflexively root for their country's Olympians based on national allegiance. But will you feel any connection to the athletes? Will you "care" about them?

Certainly the networks of NBC have a vested interest in whether you care. We want you to watch, of course, but we also want more than that. We want you to root hard during the Games, post about them on Facebook and Twitter, talk about them with your friends, and come back for more every night.

The solution? Get those human-interest stories going.

Watch the Olympics next week, and you will quickly get to know the biggest American stars. Watch 11Alive this week, and you will even more quickly get to know our Georgia stars. We are airing stories on 19 athletes this week - and that's before the Olympics even start. And in every story, you will learn about the Olympian's athletic prowess, but you will also likely be regaled and moved by something in that person's personal story.

I, for my part, am responsible for three such stories this week - and seven overall. I spent several days on two different occasions covering the U.S. swim team and meeting our local athletes. This week alone, if you see my stories, you will meet:

Eric Shanteau: He will compete in the 100-meter breaststroke at this year's Games, but he is best known for what he did in the 2008 Olympics: choosing to compete despite having just learned he had testicular cancer.

Kathleen Hersey: She is a 22-year-old rising star who will compete in the 200-meter butterly, but she's also a native of Athens, Georgia who set high school records at Atlanta's Marist School. This year is extra-special not just because she is competing in the Olympics, but because she lost her mother to colon cancer six months ago and has been motivated by that experience.

Amanda Weir: You will learn about Amanda's history in the pool, but you will also find out why her coach calls her "Hollywood" and how she's matured over the last four years.

With each athlete comes a unique personal story. Those stories become as much a part of the Olympic craze as anything. Sure, the stars who shine the brightest are usually the ones who exude athletic greatness: Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt captured the world's attention in 2008 because of their record-setting dominance, not any personal drama. But for the most part, we as fans also want to know who we are rooting for.

I do have one major disagreement with Klosterman, though: I don't mind the hype.

In fact, I really like it.

Yes, the stories can be a little much sometimes. And yes, if they become more of the US Weekly type, I lose interest very quickly. More than that, I certainly understand those who would prefer not to know the background of the athletes, who would rather root for the flag and admire the Olympians' athletic ability -- and nothing else.

But I enjoy having a window, good or bad, into the athletes I am watching, especially at an event like the Olympics where I know so little beforehand about them. And I don't feel like an Olympic athlete needs to be involved in a scandal or on the cover of a tabloid to become a sensation.

Beyond that, I also don't feel like it's a reach to do these stories. I would never try to tell a story that wasn't genuine, or invent an athlete's compelling background if it didn't already exist. I quoted Klosterman at the beginning of this entry, but I will end by quoting another author whose writing never fails to fascinate me: Malcolm Gladwell.

"The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I saw trickbut what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all is to assume that most things are not interesting. ... But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day."

I do believe that everyone has a story to tell - including, and perhaps especially, Olympians - and as a journalist I am fascinated by the challenge of finding those stories. So bring on the music, the emotional interviews, the athletes, and the stories. Let's get to know the people who will be representing our country on the world's highest athletic stage.

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