Pal Michael Robertson, who teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is in the business of helping people tell stories. And Robertson wrote me a few days ago to lodge a complaint about Olympics coverage:
“I’m not seeing enough of those smarmy Up Close and Personal athlete profiles that ABC perfected. Can I no longer count on a cutaway just before some Yank wins the hornpipe — a lively dance associated with sailors that must be very difficult to perform on ice — to hear about the athlete’s dead dog and sick granny who with an arf and a prayer urged her on to glory? Is Olympic success no longer to be framed as suffering and redemption?”
I was going to pose this question in print. But the very night that Robertson wrote, I was watching TV and his theory was disproved. The picture at the left is of Emily Scott, an American speed-skater with a sad personal history. Her mother and sister had served prison time for selling methamphetamine, plus her baby brother died. So sorry, Emily; but Mike, you have sought and you have found, I wrote.
Robertson wrote back to say his kvetching had been professionally motivated, and he was happy to have this story. “I’m teaching feature writing, and I’ve been looking for a good old-fashioned Olympics story about suffering and triumph.”
Fine for him. But I’m left wondering how the network elicits such tales for this “color” reporting. Do they give the athletes questionnaires asking what’s the worst thing that ever happened to them? Is there a category on the Olympic athlete registration form that says “disasters overcome”? Does the worst personal disaster make the best story?
And how come there’s no similar category on job applications? Or tax returns? Surely Uncle Sam would give folks a break now and then if they’ve been beset with personal woes?
And finally, if an athlete ever filled in the blank by saying “none of your business,” would that be so standoffish?