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25 February 2006

It's about this time every Olympics when I start getting really angry with the news coverage that is given to the athletes.

NBC had a whole segment about "America's ski team:  What went wrong?" and it went on to detail all the problems that had beset members of the team and what a disappointment that they were not "bringing home the gold."

"Ugly Americans Hang It Up" read a headling in the Buffalo News as it reported on the men's hockey team's loss to Finland.  The report mentioned their "humiliation."

"After bronze flop, big changes in store for U.S. women's hockey," says an ESPN Olympic report.  The country's nightmare:  the women only won bronze.  Oh horror!

The negative headlines weren't reserved for Americans.  "Cooper a fallen star," read a Herald Sun headline, speaking of Australian Jacqui Cooper, the freestyle aerialist who had set two world records, by at least 10 points, on her first day of competition, but lost a medal when she fell on the second day.

It makes me so angry that the media is so intent on making a great tragedy out of coming in third and "only" taking home a bronze medal.  Or of setting two world records, but unable to bring home a gold.  It infuriates me when "only" bronze is treated as a national tragedy.  That somehow this athlete who has made it to the Olympics, for God's sake, has let down an entire nation because he "only" brought home a bronze medal.

There are eighty nations participating in these Olympics.  Most are sending more than one athlete in each sport.  There is only one gold medal awarded for each event (unless, of course, the French judge cheats).  Where is the national tragedy in coming in second?   or third?

Each night on our nightly news there is the "medal count," seeing how we stack up against the other nations.  Who has the most gold medals.

I know it's a contest.   I know that the function of a contest is that somebody wins and somebody loses, but these are the best of the best.  It's terrible what we do to athletes.

I have mixed emotions about Bode Miller.  When I see all the articles about the Peck's Bad Boy of skiing and I read about his exploits and then his problems on the slope, there is a part of me which takes some sort of gleeful pleasure in his failure.  But then I listen to him in interview.  This isn't the same creature that the media has depicted.  This sounds like a kid who has his priorities straight, who is in Turino to enjoy the experience to the fullest, who wants to do his best, but who really doesn't care one way or the other where he places, because for him the "winning" comes from just being there.

"Cohen's golden dream dies from a familiar poison," screamed the headlines, after Sasha Cohen had to suffer the ignominy of having silver placed around her neck.  #2 in the world.   Oh the shame of it.

"Ultimately, it's four minutes of one day of my life. I look back on the four years, and it's been such a journey. I've grown so much as a person and as an athlete," said Cohen, putting the athlete's positive attitude on it.  But the newpaper was determined to make it into a tragedy.   "There would be no golden ending for this night's Juliet," ended the article, melodramatically.

She was crucified by the L.A. Times, which speculated that her problem was she didn't want it badly enough.

"You know, when you go out there and have all the people watching … and you know that your practice hasn't gone completely right, it's hard to feel like you're getting churros at Disneyland."

Hard for silver medalists, perhaps, but easy for champions.

When their team is trailing by a basket in the final seconds, champions want the ball. Just ask Michael Jordan.   When their team trails by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, champions want the bat. Just ask Derek Jeter.  When the going gets tough, for champions, that is Disneyland.

The legacy of Sasha Cohen is that she sees it differently, and thus America will see her differently.  Once thought to be Tim Duncan, she is instead Chris Webber....Once destined to be Joe Montana, she is instead Peyton Manning....Looks great in everything but sweat.

Shame.  Shame.  Shame.  Hide that silver.  It's not worthy of our country.

You can't tell me that Jacqui Cooper is hiding her head in shame for letting Australia down because she "only" set two world records, but failed to bring home gold. 

I wish that we could honor our athletes for all the work and sacrifice on the part of themselves and their families to make it to the Olympics, to congratulate them on a job well done when they finish their competition, no matter whether they win or whether they just manage to do the best they can.  The gold is simply the frosting on the cake.

I also listened to the news conference between speed skaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick, following their "loss" of the gold.  The reporters refused to let either man go until they had come up with something negative to say about the other one.  The two don't like each other.  So what?  Why create this humongous thing out of it.  They did their jobs.  They won silver and bronze.  Big national tragedy.  Who cares whether they're going to go off and get a beer together to console themselves on their great disgrace?

It is a shame that we place more importance on "winning" than we place on "performing."   You see it all the time in parents "encouraging" small children in various athletic endeavors.  Children who are yelled at or punished because they didn't come in first, children who are pushed to be the best, not simply to get out and enjoy themselves.

I hope I didn't do that.   I don't think I did.  But maybe parents don't realize what they are doing to their kids and think they are doing the best for them.

The only time I remember pushing a kid to do was either Paul or Ned.  He wanted to quit... the team? the show?  Something.  I read him the riot act, not because I wanted him to get out and succeed, to make his mom proud, but because he had made a commitment to the team and everyone was counting on him.  My message was:  if you want to quit, fine.  You can quit.  That's entirely your decision.  But you can't quit until you finish what you started.   You can't leave everyone else in the lurch.

It seems that our athletes never bring home all the gold that is expected of them.  But I just love watching the look of sheer joy on the face of someone who has just achieved a personal best, even if that personal best places him/her in 16th place.  That's what it's all about--doing the best you can, not in counting up the medals.

In Part 4 of Sedona, Arizona, Paul and Audra leave Sedona and head for Los Angeles...and Paul learns something surprising about his spirituality.


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How can she ever live with the shame?


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