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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Feb. 20, 2024

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Jayne: Sports puts the real in reality TV

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

The favorite stumbled, bumbled, fell and was relegated to tears. The silver medalist screamed and cried in anger. The gold medalist, champion of the marquee event at the Winter Olympics, appeared forlorn while longing for somebody to hug.

And as the drama and even the melodrama of women’s figure skating played out Thursday at the Beijing Games, we were reminded that sports are the only reality TV.

The recap: Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian, entered the competition being called the greatest figure skater in history. While in Beijing, it was revealed that in December she had failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs. A review panel cleared the 15-year-old to compete anyway, and the NBC announcers firmly stated their belief that she should have been banned.

The International Olympic Committee announced there would not be a medal ceremony if Valieva finished in the top three. Think about that; it’s like the NFL saying before the Super Bowl, “Yeah, we’ll let this guy play, but if his team wins there will be no trophy presentation.”

Valieva was in first place entering the final competition. But she bungled her way to a shocking fourth-place finish. And did we mention she’s 15? Just want to make that clear.

With Valieva in fourth place, that cleared the way for a podium ceremony. Except silver medalist Alexandra Trusova, a 17-year-old Russian, did not want to participate. She apparently believed she deserved gold and was shown on camera in a distraught state. She was quoted in various media reports as saying: “I will never go out on the ice again! Never! I hate! … Everyone has a gold medal! Only I don’t! I hate it all!”

That left Anna Shcherbakova, another 17-year-old Russian, sitting by herself while coaches and administrators comforted her distressed teammates. Shcherbakova had only won the gold medal. Later, she expressed happiness but added, “On one hand, I feel this emptiness inside.”

At least the bronze medalist was thrilled.

Eventually, a podium ceremony was held, capping one of the most extraordinary nights in Olympic history. In the process, the entire scene relegated the rest of us to voyeurism, simultaneously compelled yet repulsed by the drama.

Which brings up the analogy of reality TV.

For three decades or so, reality TV has been a dominant feature of American television. But there is nothing real about it; there is pre-packaged pablum that is conceived, produced and edited to maximize conflict in order to tantalize viewers. As a psychologist who has worked on reality shows told the New York Times in 2019: “The things that make reality TV entertaining are things like conflict, distress, jeopardy, the unexpected. None of these are things we would promote in terms of mental health positivity.”

Sports provide conflict and the unexpected, and they do so in a manner that is not contrived. The games are not edited to artificially enhance the drama; the drama is organic, and there is resolution at the end with a winner being declared.

Of course, we can probably find a battalion of psychologists who say that subjecting a 15-year-old to global scrutiny does not promote mental health positivity — either for her or for us. In the 1995 book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” journalist Joan Ryan details the culture of elite gymnastics and figure skating. “Their childhoods are gone,” Ryan writes. “They risk serious physical and psychological problems that can linger long after the public has turned its attention to the next phenom in pigtails.”

All of which means that Thursday’s competition featured remarkable human emotion on multiple levels. Yet it left us — like the winner — with an emptiness inside. The conflict provided by controversy, triumph, disappointment and heartbroken teenage girls was too much — and yet impossible to turn off.

That probably makes it the definitive event for modern society. As Ryan writes: “Deep down, we know that our consumption and disposal of these young athletes are tantamount to child exploitation and, in too many cases, child abuse.”