July 31, 2012

Kim Rhode is, by any objective measure, Olympic royalty. Or should be.

She has won medals in each of the past five Olympic games, starting at age 17, when she earned a gold during the 1996 competition in Atlanta. On Sunday, as expected, Rhode captured the top prize in her sport and in the process set a new Olympic record.

Rhode’s experience as an Olympic athlete is recognizable in many ways: years of training in virtual anonymity; nerve-wracking moments during which dreams can be realized or shattered; medal ceremonies where tears stream out of relief as much as pride.

But Rhode, 33, is confronted with questions that few other athletes face because she is a shooter — a term embraced by Rhode and other athletes who shoot rifles and pistols for sport. Olympic shooters must deal with unfortunate associations: They compete in a sport — one that demands concentration and decades of practice — that also requires a machine that, when used maliciously, can kill people.

At a news conference last Thursday, before she earned a gold medal in women’s skeet shooting, Rhode was asked about another shooter, arguably a more famous one, who used a rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol to kill 12 and injure 58 in a packed movie theater. As with most mass shootings, the backdrop was pedestrian. The targets, random — the opposite of what happens at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where Rhode and other members of USA Shooting practice their sport.

Yes, they have thoughts on Aurora.

Yes, gun violence affects these gold medalists.

Yes, mass shootings will always impact the sport.

“Our event as a sport is completely different from an isolated incident,” Rhode said during Thursday’s news conference, according to press accounts. “It’s very important to us that our sport is not generalized. The lines get blurred between news and a sport that teaches discipline.”

Most other athletes get a pass on the podium. Swimmer Ryan Lochte won’t be asked about drownings in community pools. Gymnast Gabby Douglas will not be asked to comment on freak accidents at school jungle gyms. But with 30,000 firearms deaths in the United States each year, half of which are suicides, questions of gun violence are almost inevitable for sports shooters. The team counters images of violence with stories of Olympic success.

“The biggest challenge in our sport is the education piece,” said Dave Johnson, national rifle coach for USA Shooting. “Whether in the sport or out of it, everyone was horrified [by Aurora] and we’re not different, but the questions sometimes show that folks don’t know what the sport is about.”

“We are one of the safest sports going,” said Vincent Hancock, 23, a U.S. Army soldier who won a gold medal in skeet shooting Tuesday. “There are more injuries in Ping-Pong than there are in shooting.”

“Some of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever met are shooters,” said Matt Emmons, 31, a 2004 gold medalist competing in London. “It’s unfortunate these incidents are reflected upon us.”

Katie Yergensen, spokeswoman for USA Shooting, the Olympic-chartered governing body for the sport, says the team is well aware of stigmatization. “It comes hand-in-hand with the nature of the sport. It is generalized in the public, because what we do is different than other traditional sports. . . . But that’s why we are always emphasizing safety, accountability and team building.”

Remembering Munich

Forty years ago in Munich, American shooter Lanny Bassham, now 65, had already won the silver medal in the men’s 50-meter rifle when Israeli athletes were killed by armed members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September, in what was called the Munich Massacre. Bassham, who later won an Olympic gold medal in 1976, remembers the trauma of the day, and how the bloodshed still overshadows the successes of athletes who competed at the Games. Not an interview goes by without questions about his whereabouts that day, although no one appears to have asked him his opinion on Munich, given his sport of choice.

“I don’t think shooting sports suffered after Munich,” Bassham said. “I think shooting suffered in America from the media coverage of Columbine, only because some people drew a conclusion that marksmanship in high schools or colleges is related to somebody killing someone with a firearm.”

The politics of shooting cannot be easily divorced from the sport, perhaps because the National Rifle Association was the organizing body for the USA shooting team until 1995. Then, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) chartered USA Shooting to create an independent governing body to regulate shooting events at the state and national levels. While the team is partially funded by the USOC, it relies upon outside sponsors. Most major gun companies, according to the USA Shooting Web site, are sponsors, including Smith & Wesson and Winchester Ammunition. The site indicates that NRA is still a prominent sponsor of USA Shooting; NRA officials did not return calls for comment.

The team itself is neutral on gun control and politics.

“It’s not shocking to hear questions about gun control legislation,” Johnson said. “But when it comes to athletes in the village, I haven’t heard of a single one ask about anything along the lines of politics or Aurora. They see what we do.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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