Thursday, February 25, 2010

Announcing Identity

My previous blog post, Citizenship of Sport, focused on the choices made by athletes regarding their construct of nationality and the associated ability to compete in the Olympic games. After watching the first ten days of the Vancouver Olympics television coverage, I have been struck by the ways in which the media – particularly sports announcers – has constructed the identities of athletes in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this article, the media coverage discussed is from NBC.

During the first three completed figure skating events – men’s figure skating, pairs figure skating, and ice dancing – the announcers highlighted the personal stories of the athletes. As the audience, we learned of the injuries suffered by some athletes, the family dynamics of others, the marital status of still others, and even saw childhood pictures of others. We saw their performances, heard the critiques of announcers, and could easily feel the tension and joy or sadness of these athletes when their scores were announced. And yet, throughout all of these stories, the emphasis was placed first on identifying the athletes as people and humanizing them through the explanation of their personal lives, particularly the struggles they endured for the their sport and their dreams of being Olympic athletes.

Through the medium of television announcers as intermediaries, the social laws and norms of dedicated athletes punctuated the norms of the viewing public. It would perhaps be difficult for viewers to imagine volitionally living in a separate dormitory from one’s spouse and sharing meals in a communal dining hall, yet the story of Shen and Zhao, who do this on a daily basis in order to comply with the laws of their training system, made it understandable, if not indeed praiseworthy for their dedication. Interestingly, what was not emphasized in the process of storytelling by the media was nationality of the athletes involved in the skating events. Certainly, nationality was mentioned, but it was not the paramount identifier; instead, names and stories were. These athletes were identified and defined to the viewers through their personalities and struggles, and we supported them out of solidarity or sympathy, not necessarily nationality. In many ways, this can be seen as an outgrowth of the idea of citizenship of sport in that it validates the athletes’ identities as skaters first because of the sacrifices which these athletes made for their sport.

In sharp contrast, the announcers covering the cross-country skiing events have largely identified the nationality of the athletes before mentioning their names. Indeed, during these broadcasts it has not been uncommon to hear a reference to the country for which the athlete competed as the identifier, with little personal information made available to the audience. Of the information made available, much focused on the athletes’ injuries either before or during the competition and not on the deeply personal and compelling stories of the athletes themselves. Often, the focus of information was on the history of the athletes’ countries successes and failures within the particular competition and even against other countries in the competition. The sense of identity for the athletes, at least from the point of view of the audience, thus was shifted to their country, making it easier in a sense for the audience to decide on a favorite athlete due to national allegiance. This method of identity conveyance is also arguably a way to downplay the agency of the skiers as individual athletes, emphasizing instead their identity as part of a larger state apparatus and history in the Olympic games.

While some of this difference in identity transmission could be attributed to the personal announcing styles of the sportscasters for each event, I would argue that there is more to discuss in this difference. Certainly, there is a way to view this difference as an outgrowth of the duality of the Olympics themselves; athletes compete in their individual capacities for their countries, thus there is an allegiance to both the athlete and the country on the part of the audience. In conjunction with the idea of citizenship of state, however, one can view this difference as emblematic of the dichotomy of understanding of the relationship between athlete and citizenship. The method of conveying identity used in the figure skating example clearly supports the conception of an athlete as an individual (or pair) who has dedicated himself to his selected sport to the point where the sport is a method of identity. In this situation, the choice of competing for another country is understandable. However, the method of conveying identity used in the cross-country skiing example clearly supports the idea of state-based citizenship as the defining force in an athlete’s identity and drive, with the idea of being a skier as secondary to that of being a citizen of a particular country.

Thus, we see a more subtle way in which citizenship of sport is introduced to the viewing public through the medium of sports announcers. It is through this medium that the audience also understands and interacts with the laws and norms of a sport which requires a level of dedication and sacrifice that would be outside the realm of traditionally accepted norms in mainstream society.

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