Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Athletic Liberal Guilt

After dying with laughter over Larry Gilmore’s unforgettable piece on the Obama victory, ‘Black Liberal Guilt’, I realized the able-bodied world has the same guilt-ridden feelings towards handicapped athletes. But unlike Gilmore’s oppressed race, my minority is so small and tragic that we’ll never get on the other side of this. You see I am an actual handicapped athlete. I am a paraplegic hand cycler and if I told you my story, you might well up with sympathy and offer to do something incredibly generous. I have been the recipient of hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars of support in my recovery and I appreciate every minute and penny.

But when it comes to actual hand cycling, I’d really love to get beyond all that and see the damn sport. Sadly this rarely happens and NBC’s Paralympics coverage on Sunday was no different. Hell, we crips had our president long before Obama (FDR) and we still won’t get on the far side of the sympathy equation. I don’t even know if I can criticize NBC for what they did, because everything they did was done with a giving spirit and with great intensions.

But enough is enough already. I recall the CBS team that did the Olympics through the 90’s being thoroughly trashed by critics for airing three minutes of background schlock for every minute of actual coverage. On Sunday, NBC went for ten minutes of schlock against at-best 20 seconds of event coverage. And they didn’t even bother to really cover the event – only the result of the person they hand-picked to shoot their footage on. They made no attempt to explain any of the events; they buried the show between two NFL games; and didn’t bother to air it until three months after the closing ceremony. Olympic fever isn’t even a cough at this point so the only people watching were people like me. But I bet it made NBC feel better just for doing something right?

Here’s the tragic part – there were hundreds of hours of actual event coverage shot. And that coverage was fantastic. Real sports covered by real journalists and expert commentators – many of whom also covered the ‘real’ Olympics. Basketball guys talking about jump shots and swimming guys talking about stroke work. Real Sports.

But NBC just didn’t think the viewing public could handle it. This fantastic footage was relegated to unpublicized, oft-interrupted web-cast streaming. Unless you were plugged into a very powerful and consistent connection it was too painful to watch. But if you did manage to see any of that footage it was just as dramatic, just as compelling as all the other Olympic coverage. It’s a bunch of athletes you’ve probably never heard of, putting on the red, white and blue and participating in sports you will probably only watch once every four years. As long as the U.S. is in a gold-medal contest, any Olympic viewer could care less if they understand the nuances of the sport. They’ll sit next to the TV, cheer like hell and jump up and down when somebody crosses the line first or scores more points than the other team.

And after watching a full 200 meter race or a full basketball game you forget anyone of them has any disability at all. They’re just jocks trying to win. Period. In 2010 when Vancouver welcomes the world and NBC decides to cover the Paralympics, do me a favor: Put your schlock on Lifetime and give me the mono-ski downhill race – preferably within 24-hours of its completion.

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