Brett Abrams

Olympic Possibilities

Filed By Brett Abrams | January 09, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: gay athletes, gay Olympics, lesbian athletes, Matthew Mitcham, media, Mitcham, Olympics, Outsports, sports

With the beginning of the new year, all sorts of blogs and news outlets ran articles on the top events of 2008. Matthew_Mitcham.jpgOne of the more intriguing posts to me came from the Outsports site.

The editors named the Summer Olympic Games diver, Matthew Mitcham, as the person of the year. They noted that the vote was overwhelming as Mitcham captivated gay people around the world with his gold-medal performance on the last day of Olympic diving in August. Mitcham executed the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history on his final dive to win gold.

Certainly the emphasis on the sporting accomplishment of Mitcham makes perfect sense. However, his story intrigues me in a much different way.

Mitcham's performance received less than stellar coverage from NBC and its multiple Olympic Games networks. We know that athletes have a greater struggle with their image if they have a gay or lesbian sexual orientation.

Look at how prevalent the television coverage of heterosexual athletes' boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, were during the Games. How come the boyfriend of the Australian diver Matthew Mitcham never appeared in a shot of the stands, despite being lovers with the winner of the Gold medal in the event?

The responses from the NBC executives are intriguing. "Up close and personal, get to know an athlete who has a unique story to tell." Geez, wouldn't Mitcham qualify as having a highly unique story?

The coverage of the women who were lesbians were as sparse, even when the athletes were Americans. An article by Patricia Neil Warren raises the issue of the slanted coverage that the gay media provided regarding the performances of Mitcham and the lesbians who won gold medals -- Natasha Kai on the U.S. women's soccer team, and team captain Gro Hammerseng and her partner Katja Nyberg on the Norwegian handball team.

Athletic images that are invisible because of their sexual interests. NBC executives finally apologized for not featuring even "regular" coverage of Mitcham's accomplishment. Perhaps an effort needs to be made to make sure that the apology turns into a positive accomplishment. How about coverage of gay and lesbian Olympians at the 2010 Games?

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Catherine Garner | January 9, 2009 7:24 PM

Might be worth noting that Mitcham got stacks of coverage in Australia so I think some of the paucity of coverage is related to the fact that he's not an American Athlete.

That is an interesting point. Nationalism is a large part of the Olympic coverage and experience. Also would be interesting to write a paper comparing the coverage in Australia for him with the coverage in the US.

NBC did focus on the two Chinese divers despite their not being American. Probably because China was the host nation and the two were the favorites (stars). However, Mitcham would have made a great underdog/dark horse story and that fact that they failed to capture that dramatic moment raises questions about their ability to provide compelling television. Or did the lack of coverage have to do with their ability or inability to package him?

My overriding message in this post is to raise the question of whether our watchdogs like GLAAD and our other organizations missed a chance to follow up on NBC's admission of a mishandling of the coverage. Could these representatives of our community put pressure on the network suits to demonstrate that they could do better for the glbtq community immediately and in their future Olympic coverage?

Gay men ate Mitcham up because he's hot and twinky. Network suits didn't play him up because they couldn't make him a star adored by bajillions of little girls as their "dream husband." Sometimes the sexism and cookie-cutter fantasy land promoted by network tv is disgusting. Show me reality. Telling me a star is straight doesn't make me think he's any less cute!


Do you think that the networks underestimate the audiences? Specifically do you think that they could package an out gay man in a way that would appeal to the fantasies of young women?

That's a tough question. While there are similarities to the Olympic athletes and TV or movie stars, the big difference is what you referenced - "the spouse in the stands" shot. On a TV show or movie, the actor plays a part that the audience can invest in and fantasize about since they see them on screen as heterosexual. In Matthew's case, showing him kiss his boyfriend or even "the boyfriend shot," would kill that fantasy for some women/girls (although heighten gay guy interest!) since they'd get confirmation - while they're in the magic star-struck mode - that th object of their affection will never return it.

What also has to be taken into account is that groups of people hold different fantasies. Clearly, Twilight has shown the kind of fantasy that teen girls like and that's different from mature women and from immature and mature men.

Was there a potential opportunity to arm twist NBC after their apology or am I nuts?

I am proud of the corporate world on this one, Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceuticals for sponsoring him and sending him to the Olympics in China from Australia. The company was aware he was gay and out.

Hi Charles:

Thanks for the insight. Was the corporate decision made in the US or Australia. If the latter I wonder how it ties in to what Catherine observed about the extensive coverage that Mitcham received from Australian media despite his sexual orientation?

Bottom line is that they view China as a vast market for their family products. J & J China and J & J Australia made the decisions regarding the Olympic athletes.
I think Australia appreciated the native hero because he was one of them, a human interest story, photogenic, and the last time I was in Sydney, Australians were very gay friendly. Not a big suffocating religious scene as there is in this country.
The family that control most the preferred stock and company are LGBT friendly. My late wife's father founded Johnson and Johnson.