LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Although the Winter Olympics have barely begun, we’ve already had our first major clash. It took place a few days ago, in a packed auditorium, during a press conference. It was not a clash of skis or hockey sticks, but a clash of cultures. In many ways, it set the stage for these Olympics.
The focus of that press conference was Norway’s Vegard Ulvang, a top cross-country skier and a national hero. Cross- country is to Norway what basketball is to America. Ulvang is hugely famous. When he speaks, people listen.
He addressed the news media on various subjects, including his role as Olympic oath-taker, and of course, skiing.
During most of this, the American reporters sat motionless, their eyes glazing over. Few seemed interested in Ulvang’s thoughts on snow conditions. Even fewer would have known who he was if not for a recent Sports Illustrated profile, which detailed the disappearance of his brother, Ketil, who vanished while jogging four months ago. Ketil is feared dead.
This, naturally, piqued the curiosity of the U.S. media looking for a feature story. Near the end of the press conference, an American reporter rose and asked Ulvang: “Has the loss of your brother affected your training, and is it true that after the Olympics you will go back to look for him?”
A hush fell over the room.
‘Why did you ask him that?’
Ulvang was silent for a moment. Then, in broken English, he replied, “It was a big tragedy for me and my family. . . . We will miss (Ketil) a lot. . .
He was shaking, his voice trembling.
“I will return in the springtime. . . .”
He was crying now.
“. . . As soon as the snow is gone, I will try and find him. . . .”
He put his head in his hands and began to sob. The press conference quickly ended.
What happened next was most interesting. A crowd of Norwegian journalists surrounded the American questioner and began shouting at him for lack of sensitivity.
“Why did you ask him that?” they demanded. “Why did you upset him? Were you trying to hurt him?”
The reporter, a man from Baltimore, was taken aback. He defended his actions by saying that in America, such questions are not out of line. He noted that when Michael Jordan lost his father, reporters asked him about that.
Although many American journalists would agree with him — and that crying clip would be replayed a million times on TV — the Norwegians were unmoved. The issue created a public debate. And the consensus in Norway was that the American reporter was insensitive and wrong, and, to coin a motherly phrase, he should be ashamed of himself.
A cultural difference
In many ways, this is a classic joust between how America sees the Olympics and how the rest of the planet sees them. We look for stories. They look for results. We look for teardrops. They look for split times. We want Nancy-Tonya, a TV Movie of the Week. They want to know who wins the biathlon.
We can dismiss this as their way, our way. And yet the anger of those Norwegian reporters recalls something we have nearly forgotten in American journalism: the concept of shame.
Surely the Norwegian reporters wondered the same thing as our man from Baltimore, but they were too polite to ask such a question before a large group. Can you imagine their reaction to the questions on a Phil Donahue show?
Or Howard Stern? (Somehow, I don’t think Stern translates into Norwegian.)
By the same token, Norwegian heroes exhibit modesty of their own. There are no publicity vampires here like Roseanne Arnold and Drew Barrymore, who run to People magazine with every scarring childhood memory. Norway does not produce a Madonna, or Geraldo Rivera, who will do anything for more publicity.
Shame limits action here on both sides of the media line. To our way of thinking, this makes Norwegians dull.
Maybe they are. But maybe there’s a lesson. The American media — me included — is trained to hunt down every sob story, every athlete with a sick mother, a dying sister or a missing brother. We think nothing of going for the open wound — in the interest of “probing journalism.” And of course, these Olympic Games are already overshadowed by the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama, because drama sells, and what sells is always of peak importance in the United States.
Yet it plays on the brain, that scene between the Norwegians and the man from Baltimore. Shame on you, they seemed to say. Did you really have to ask that? It’s a question worth repeating — ideally, we should ask it first of ourselves. Something tells me we’ll have plenty of chances here in Lillehammer. Plenty of chances indeed.