This is an op-ed piece that I ghost-wrote for Gunars Zagars. It appeared in the Washington Post in January, 2002, just before the start of the Salt Lake City games.
With less than two weeks to go before the Olympic torch reaches Salt Lake City, figure skating specials are consuming TV viewing hours and sports commentators are starting to care about the luge again; any day now – just you watch – NBC’s on-screen peacock logo will be replaced by the Olympic rings.
My family is waiting eagerly for these opening ceremonies – just as we have for Olympiads in the recent past. You see, we’re Latvian – and, like the thousands of other Americans of Latvian heritage, we’ll be on the lookout for our ancestral country’s team in the televised parade of nations. But if the past is anything to go by, a combination of alphabetical bad luck and the American television industry’s cavalier attitude (as well as a blind commitment to commercial profit) may well mean we’ll be disappointed once again – with our team’s moment in the spotlight lost during a break for ads.
Now this might seem a minor slight to most Americans, dulled by detailed coverage of hometown athletes and flag-waving heroes. But the connection between national sentiments and the Olympics is profound and well documented, from Jesse Owens and Hitler to Japanese ski-jumper Masahiko “Happy” Harada to 2000’s marquee story, Aborigine Cathy Freeman. And in a tightly knit community of émigrés such as ours – especially one that had its nationhood restored a decade ago after a half-century of Soviet domination – those feelings take on special significance. You see, we don’t get to read much about our homeland in the news, so any connection – no matter how brief, no matter how symbolic – is emotionally charged.
What’s more, my family has a special interest in the games. My mother, Zinaida Liepinsh, represented Latvia in 1928 – the first year in which women were allowed to participate in track and field. She was then a 20-year-old sprinter and high jumper, one of 290 women competing, and although she did not win a medal in Amsterdam that year, she was enormously proud to represent her native land and to serve as a vanguard for other women.
Even decades later, my mother’s memories of Amsterdam were among her most treasured. She would share her collection of newspaper clippings and photos with anyone who expressed interest. Her athletic deeds were legendary in our family, and although she wasn’t much of an American-style sports fan, she always made a point of gathering us around the TV to watch the Olympics.
After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, my mother and her family and so many other people of Latvian heritage looked forward to seeing the Latvian Olympic team during the 1992 opening ceremonies. What a proud moment it would be to watch our Baltic countrymen (and women!) march into an Olympic stadium flying the red-white-red flag, once again participants in the glorious parade of nations.
But coverage of the opening ceremonies in 1992 broke for commercials before the Latvians were introduced and resumed after they had passed by. The same thing happened in 1994. And in 1996. And in 1998. Each year we would tune in, eager to catch a small glimpse of our Olympic heroes, and each year we would get Japan… Kenya… the Koreas… and Kummercials.
We called our local TV stations to complain afterward, but by then it was too late.
At first, these Olympic omissions were disappointing, then laughable, then just downright insulting. My mother, by this time in her eighties, roiled inside with each affront.
Alas, she never did get to experience her moment of exhilaration. As she grew older, my mother became rather reclusive and reverted to speaking Latvian almost exclusively – though we could still elicit a spark from her whenever we asked her to speak about Amsterdam and 1928. She died in March of 2000 – a few months shy of the start of the 27th Summer Olympiad.
Hence, it was with great sadness that I decided I would do my best to make 2000, at last, the year. I would mount a campaign in advance; I would work with my fellow Latvian-Americans, and we would make sure that for a few seconds at least, Latvia would get its due during the Olympic coverage.
My team of Latvia-advocates, living throughout this country, tried contacting executives at NBC before the Olympics in Sydney – but none would even acknowledge that they had received our messages. We sent letters to Robert C. Wright, then-president of NBC, at his offices in Fairfield, Conn., and New York City. There was no response.
In spite of that, we convinced ourselves we had a chance. We had made our requests well ahead of time. Instead of the plaintive cries of a few individuals, this time there were dozens and dozens. And because of the time difference between Australia and the United States, we knew that NBC had had ample opportunity to edit and re-edit the TV package it would present.
On the evening of Friday, Sept. 15, 2000, a party of six gathered at our house to watch – with fingers crossed – the opening ceremonies in Sydney.
Per custom, Greece was the first country to be introduced, and the rest of the 199 participating nations followed, with the host country saved for last. Into the Olympic stadium and onto our TV screens marched Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra and nine other countries before NBC took a commercial break. The ads lasted 2 1/2 minutes and, when coverage resumed, Belgium was coming into view. In our living room in Westford, we consulted our list of countries: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados and Belarus had fallen victim to the break in coverage.
Belize, Benin, Bermuda. On they came. The next commercial break began after the British Virgin Islands had been introduced and, after a few words from GE and Coca-Cola, NBC returned to a scene of Canada parading in front of the cameras. A quick check of the list: Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia and Cameroon — none of them a household name or (we couldn’t help noticing) the native land of many immigrants to the United States — had been omitted. Perhaps NBC was engaging in a curious brand of natural selection, in which not only the strongest survive, but also perhaps those least likely to cause an uproar among micro-viewing communities.
Another two-minute break took the place of the introductions of Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia (Latvia’s Baltic neighbor!), Ethiopia, the Federated States of Micronesia and Fiji. Not a large or powerful country among them. Israel was shown, and again NBC went to commercials. The next nation up was Italy, which also happened to be next on the alphabetical list. Of course. NBC would not dare disenfranchise such an important group as the Italian Americans.
Next came Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan and Kenya. Then the Koreas, marching jointly for the first time since before the Korean War – an important and symbolic event, no doubt, but in my living room we were already tense and bracing for the important minutes to follow. Kuwait, the penultimate “K,” was introduced. Then came a block of commercials. When coverage resumed after an agonizing 2 ½ minutes, we saw not the Kyrgyzstani or Laotian teams, but Mexican athletes. Eighteen nations had been ignored, including – for the fifth straight Olympiad – Latvia!
A couple of the Latvian-born women in my living room were almost in tears. “Not again!” they cried. But, despite all of our efforts, it had indeed happened again.
I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of Olympic coverage or of TV scheduling. But I know in my heart of hearts that in this melting-pot country, there is something wrong with a system that gives paid air time to Budweiser and Domino’s Pizza at the expense of a few badly needed moments of recognition for nations that struggled against oppression to realize the American Dream of democracy and freedom. I am grateful to be an American and proud to be a Latvian, but I am also deeply saddened that I have repeatedly been denied this rare chance to revel in my heritage.
NBC ignored our pleas, as did CBS (which televised all the Winter Games in the 90s) before it. My mother’s hopes were dashed. And yet, and yet, I still maintain a flicker of hope that this time around Latvians – indeed, all the nations in the parade, will get their due.