Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018
 

No gold for NBC

Sports


jocktalkroger@yahoo.com

Out Olympic gold medalist Matthew Mitcham. Photo: Courtesy NBC
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NBC showed the world its mastery at ignoring issues its does not want to acknowledge by not once mentioning in its official broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympics that seven LGBT athletes earned medals in Beijing. Nowhere was this omission more glaring than when Australian diver Matthew Mitcham pulled out the dive of his life to win the men's platform gold, dashing host China's hopes for a sweep of the diving medals while his mother and his lover cheered wildly from the stands. Is sexuality relevant to athletic performance? Perhaps not - but only if you believe a gold medal moment exists in a vacuum, rather than the cumulative result of years of excelling by overcoming obstacles.

After his victory, NBC did not report what Mitcham himself succinctly expressed: without the support of his boyfriend and his mother, he would not be where he was last weekend, on top of the athletic world. That would have been at least as interesting a story to relate as some of the other family stories of perseverance that NBC did present - especially at a time when the basic humanity of allowing gays to tell their armies "I am" and tell their partners "I do" is the object of such debate.

Mitcham's triumph was just one highlight of LGBT athletic performances in Beijing. Lesbian couple Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg combined for six goals in the 34-27 handball victory over Russia to help deliver Norway's first-ever gold medal in that women's event. In women's soccer, Hawaiian forward Natasha Kai provided the overtime goal for the United States in a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Canada en route to gold; midfielder Linda Bresonik played substantial time for the bronze-winning German team.

For the U.S. women's softball team that took silver, openly bisexual infielder Vicky Galindo of Hayward and catcher Lauren Lappin of Anaheim both made offensive contributions throughout the tournament in starting and pinch-hitting roles. Galindo, a former Cal start, had been sidelined earlier this year when a pitch broke her arm, necessitating a plate and screws to be put in, but she collected two hits and an RBI in the Olympic tournament. Lappin started in a victory over Taipei, delivering a hit, a sacrifice fly and driving two runs, and knocked in another run pinch-hitting in an 8-0 victory over the Netherlands.

Also competing in the Olympics were Swedish soccer player Victoria "Vickan" Svensson; Australian tennis player Rennae Stubbs; German cyclist Judith Andt, a Gay Games ambassador; and German epee fencer Imke Duplitzer, who won silver four years before and was making her fourth Olympic appearance. She finished out of the medals this time, but like several athletes used the opportunity in China to speak out on human rights.

On its www.nbcolympics.com Web site, NBC notes that Mitcham came out earlier this year. It does not mention orientation in any of its other athlete profiles, not even Arndt's association with the Gay Games. Mitcham's sexuality was enough of an issue for it to be mentioned in virtually every other mainstream news media outlet - the vaunted New York Times being one of the most notable and predictable exceptions, given its historic resistance to acknowledging even the existence of homosexuality. Certainly NBC knew more than it was mentioning - Kai, whose profile noted that she had 19 tattoos and a rebel reputation, had mentioned a "nasty breakup" with her girlfriend in a previous interview with NBC. So why this reluctance to say on the air what has already been said in print?

NBC did not respond to a message seeking comment, but NBC Sports spokesman Greg Hughes did tell http://www.afterelton.com that the network wasn't even aware of any controversy over its coverage of Mitcham. When confronted with the complaints of censorship, Hughes simply stated that "we don't discuss an athlete's sexual orientation."

[Update: Late Wednesday, Gary Zenkel, head of NBC's Olympic coverage, told afterelton.com that the network erred. "We regret that we missed the opportunity to tell Matthew Mitcham's story," Zenkel told he Web site. "We apologize for this unintentional omission."]

While I was watching Mitcham perform this year, I could not help but think back to when I was in Seoul 20 years ago covering Greg Louganis as he was going for his historic sweep of platform and springboard golds in back-to-back Olympics. I had attended most of his major events leading up to the final day. When he had trouble with his entries in the nationals in California I figured, no worry, he has plenty of time to clean them up. Later when he still had trouble with entrees at the trials in Indianapolis, I called my office to make sure my schedule would put me at the pool for the platform finals, because I thought he might have trouble winning the gold. And when the big day came, he indeed did trail a young Chinese diver through every round, still foundering on his finishes - until the last dive, when he pulled out everything he had, electrified the crowd and narrowly escaped with the gold.

Afterward he broke down in the arms of his coach. I knew

Matthew Mitcham, right, kisses his boyfriend Lachlan Fletcher after winning the gold medal in platform diving. Photo: Courtesy NBC
he had been rattled after smacking his head on the springboard days earlier, but I had never seen him lose his composure in public. I turned to a friend in the press box and told her, "Something's going on with him that we don't know about."

It was only years later, after he had already come out, that we learned he had been diagnosed with HIV that year and had been carrying that silent secret locked in his heart.

You really think gold medal moments happen in a vacuum?

NBC had video of Mitcham, 20, going into the stands to kiss his mother, Vivienne, and his boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, posted on its Web site - but did not use it for its broadcast. NBC referred to Mitcham's having taken time off from the sport to deal with depression and other personal matters, but never mentioned that coming out was part of the catharsis that led to his returning to the sport, and not just returning but climbing to a higher pinnacle than he had ever achieved before.

Since his return, Mitcham has worked with Mexican coach Chava Sobrino and enjoyed a more relaxed training regimen. Even Sobrino was shocked when Mitcham, diving just after Chinese star Zhou Luxin had flubbed a dive to create a tiny opening, perfectly nailed his back two-and-a-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists dive to earn 112.10 points, leave the crowd speechless, and win the gold.

"I want to thank absolutely everyone who helped - my partner Lachlan and my mom here to support me and watch me get gold, because it was so important to have those two people here with me," Mitcham said after the victory. "I didn't think I had a chance to get the gold and to actually get that was mind-blowing. I was crying thinking I had silver and to get gold, I was a blubbering mess.

"Being gay and diving are completely separate parts of my life. Of course there's going to be crossover because some people have issues. But everyone I dive with has been so supportive. I'm happy with myself and where I am. I'm very happy with who I am and what I've done."

"It's been so up and down," Fletcher said after his lover's victory. "When I first met him, he was pretty unhappy, he wasn't liking the diving in Brisbane at all, he didn't want to do it, wasn't happy being there. It took a lot for him to retire and stop doing it because it had been his life for so long. He wanted to try and be happy again. He took time to do normal things that people do.

"Then after five or six months he started to really miss it again and he had the opportunity to dive with Chava. He started that and loved it ever since, every second of it, which is great to see him happy all the time."

In his coming out article in the Sydney Morning Herald in May, Mitcham acknowledged the importance of overcoming depression and accepting his sexuality in adding to his competitive edge. "I probably wouldn't have as much of a fighting spirit," he said. "The more you have experience, the more you have to draw off. I look at the last 20 years as a long, winding path of lessons and some hardship. I hope the rest of my life isn't straight because that could be boring.

"I hope it continues to wind, but maybe not so tumultuous. I hope I do have a long and winding path and more lessons to learn. I look forward to that."

Being gay doesn't make you a better or a poorer athlete. But it is newsworthy in the same human-interest sense that the tales of athletes supported by wives and husbands or children is important - and NBC et al. consider those stories important enough to devote endless space and time to tell them.

There's a difference between being gay and being out, and there's a difference between being out and being accepted. There are differences in how you feel about yourself, the opportunities you get, the support you can expect and the degrees to which you can push yourself. So, yes, in this time, in this age, on this stage, being out was and is an issue, and NBC fumbled its chance to bring home this important human rights message at an Olympics in which individual rights are very much a focus.

We are. We can. We do.

Sports brief

Street closed to cars, open to fun

The city of San Francisco will hold its first Sunday Streets events August 31 and September 14 when it closes down a 4.5-mile stretch of the Embarcadero from Chinatown to Bayview to vehicle traffic, opening up the space from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for biking, walking, jogging, and physical activity of all kinds. The city said the event is modeled after similar efforts in such cities as Tokyo and Kiev.

The event is free. A route map and more information are available at www.sundaystreetssf.com.






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