Escape from the all-US Games

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I am off to Athens soon, and despite months of unrelenting doom-mongering about this year's Olympics, the fan in me is bursting with excitement. The competition should be sublime, the setting even more so. Being in Athens also means that I will not have to watch the Games on US television, and that may be the biggest perk of all.

The all-Americans, all-the-time coverage is nothing new; the Summer Olympics are held every four years and every four years there is much tut-tutting about the self-absorbed fare served up to US viewers. (The jingoism is a little less pronounced during the Winter Games, if only because the US is not nearly so dominant.)

However, the telecasts do seem to grow more tilted each Olympiad, and with Americans generally feeling blue at the moment, the coverage from Athens promises to be even more star-spangled than usual.

The cheerleading is not limited to the Olympics, of course. Whenever Americans are competing internationally, you can count on the television coverage in the US to be shamelessly one-sided. Take this year's French Open tennis coverage on ESPN, the all-sports network. During the fortnight, there were several instances in which ESPN opted to show taped matches from the day before involving US players rather than live matches featuring non-Americans.

Far be it from me to tell ESPN executives how to run their programming, but it did seem that the decision to show as many Americans as possible was a bit shortsighted. Presumably, most people tuning in at 10.15am are diehard fans more interested in watching live action than watching a match from the day before just because it happened to include a fellow Yank.

Perhaps ESPN has not heard, but nowadays you can track the progress of a match point-by-point via the internet. Sure, there is nothing to see on the computer screen save numbers, but that is where the imagination comes in handy and it is probably a safe bet that ESPN cost itself some potential viewers by choosing to show highlights rather than real-time matches.

The relentless focus on Americans is also short-sighted because it presupposes US dominance, and that is a dangerous assumption at present - in tennis, for sure, and in a number of other sports.

Even baseball and basketball, homegrown pastimes, are becoming increasingly international. Currently, 27 per cent of Major League Baseball players and about 17 per cent of National Basketball Association players are foreign-born. That the US did not even qualify for Olympic baseball and could well lose the gold medal in men's basketball certainly speaks to the changes afoot in both sports.

The Athens Games, like every other recent Olympiad, will be broadcast by NBC, one of the three main US networks. NBC's objective, of course, is simply to attract the largest number of viewers and to please its advertisers. But NBC executives, being in the news business, are surely aware that the US has a bit of an image problem these days, and they are surely also aware that their US-centric Olympic coverage does not go unnoticed elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it has very much come to be seen as a symbol of American solipsism.

It is not NBC's job to engage in public diplomacy on behalf of the US. But at a time when the US is held in such poor regard, NBC could do itself and the US a world of good by easing up on the navel-gazing and giving a little more airtime to non-US athletes.

Will it happen? Almost certainly not, and that is one big reason I am delighted to be going to Athens.

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