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The preoccupation with death and tragedy at the Olympics

Do Olympic athletes who are in mourning get more screen time?

Over the weekend, viewers slammed NBC's Christin Cooper for bringing the U.S. bronze medal-winning alpine skier Bode Miller to tears with questions about his brother, who had died last April. But Cooper is far from the only reporter in Sochi to raise the dead. When it comes to Olympics coverage, death is life.

Four years ago, viewers from around the world wept along with the Canadian skater Joannie Rochette, whose mother had died of a heart attack two days before the ladies' figure skating competition began. Last week, numerous Canadian reporters asked snowboarder Dara Howell about Sarah Burke, who had died in a training accident two years ago; Howell dedicated her gold medal to Burke's memory.

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Now, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune has compiled a spreadsheet tracking athletes in the Sochi Games whose press coverage mentions the death of a friend or loved one. Nate Carlisle, the paper's military reporter, wrote that he was watching the men's slopestyle skiing event when an NBC reporter noted that the gold medalist Joss Christensen had lost his father last year.

"I turned to my wife and said, 'They found another one.'" wrote Carlisle. Curious about the phenomenon, he searched for similar stories, and turned up more than three dozen instances of Olympians labouring under the shadow of death.

He noted that the stories were published by the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Agence France-Press news wires, as well as ESPN, the Washington Post, and NBC. (Dozens of Canadian news outlets have carried stories about Sarah Burke.)

Some of the cases are high-profile, such as the Norwegian skiers who ran afoul of the International Olympic Committee when they wore armbands in memory of a teammate's brother. And sometimes the connection is both tenuous and impressively salacious, as when an NBC reporter asked the former Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan about the 2010 death of her father, for which her brother was charged with manslaughter and acquitted.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, media reporter Steven Zeitchik charges that the "Oprah-ification of post-game interviews, in which I-feel-your-pain moments are shared for the purpose of manufacturing some instant sympathy, has gotten worse."

In a recent column, Zeitchik questioned the appropriateness of NBC's Meredith Vieira asking the U.S. skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, in the wake of her winning silver, about a miscarriage she had suffered years before.

"It's of course possible Pikus-Pace had told producers she wanted to talk about it. Vieira brought up the miscarriage after Pikus-Pace had, in describing her post-retirement period, said vaguely that 'Life happened.' So maybe that was a cue for Vieira to say 'You had a miscarriage,' as she did," wrote Zeitchik. "But even if so, the discussion was the product of an Olympics TV culture that often puts emotional point-scoring above the other kind of point-scoring – you know, the one on the course or rink. And that's where it gets squishy."

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He went on to note: "At the same event where Pikus-Pace medaled, trackside interviewer Lewis Johnson asked her American teammate Katie Uhlaender – just moments after she missed a bronze medal by four-hundredths of a second – how her father, who died a few years ago, would have felt watching her performance. Within seconds, Uhlaender began choking back tears."

It was TV gold.

Follow me on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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