The Media: the True Olympic Loser

Another Prescription

It doesn't pay to advertise the coming of a miracle, because more often than not, miracles don't happen on command.

The U.S. Olympic hockey team did not produce a miracle. But why were we all so surprised?

Roone Arledge is losing money through his teeth these days. The first week of the 1984 Winter Olympics was a television ratings fiasco. This year's audiences are 50 percent smaller than four years ago, and ABC, which carries the games, has been continually swamped by competition from other networks.

One of the reasons provided as justification for the poor ratings is the weather, blistering winds and a catastrophic snowfall, which have forced Olympic organizers to cancel or reschedule certain events, thus making coverage sporadic and uninspiring.

But most analysts explain that the current lack of viewer interest results from heightened expectations of the U.S. hockey team. The squad has been heavily promoted by the networks and other media, especially through product pushing advertisers.


For the past three months, ABC has aired clip after clip of the breathtaking sequence when Mike Eruzione netted the goal that hoisted the 1980 U.S. hockey team towards the gold at the Soviet Union's expense. Pamdemonium! National pride! Miracle on ice! Blah, blah, blah...will it happen again? became the inevitable supposition.

The fervoe that surrounds Team U.S.A. has created a void. America's other stars--not to mention all other international personalities and aspects of the Olympics--have been underexposed, thus prevented from fostering widespread enthusiasm about the Olympics as a whole.

Who is Flaine Zayak from Paramus, New Jersey? Who is America's most proficient cross-country skier? Tell me about bobsledding or the East German threat. What's lugging?

The media blitz which has centered around this year's hockey team has resulted in the American public having a very narrow focus of attention. Simultaneously, this exposure has encouraged the widespread misperception that our guys could do it again, despite the fact that they never proved to be a dominating force to begin with. The only similarity between this year's and the 1980 squad is the letters on the jerseys.

In all its exhibition matches, the Olympic hockey team barely broke the .500 mark, and this record grew out of wins and losses against local college squads and the Soviet "B" team competition. The Olympic front line consists of three 17- or 18-year-old boys just out of high school.

To the experts who appreciated the deficiencies of this year's hockey team, it must not have come as a total surprise that Canada upset the squad and Czechoslovakia trounced them. They were even unable to muster a victory over Norway.

But to the superficial, and probably unknowledgeable spectator, expectation proved inconsistent with reality. All that was witnessed before the Olympics began was the hockey squad. Team U.S. of A., plastered all over every magazine cover and splashed on the nation's TV screens.

So the impression received by fair-weather spectators--a group which probably composes the bulk of any Olympic audience--grew out of a completely super-field and symbolic reference to our hockey team, at the expense of the more profound and substantive elements which determine the Olympics' true character and significance.

With such an unstable base built to support an entire national interest, it's no wonder that when the ice hockey team came crashing down, so did America's interest in the Olympics as a whole.

America has been betrayed by the media.