PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — They’re sorry at these Olympics. They’re all very sorry.
Shaun White is sorry for trivializing his sexual harassment lawsuit and dubbing it “gossip.” NBC analyst Bode Miller is sorry for mansplaining that Austrian skier Anna Veith is a struggling former gold medalist because she got married. NBC’s Katie Couric is sorry for insulting the Dutch, who have the world’s greatest speedskating tradition, by saying that skating is “an important mode of transportation” in the Netherlands when canals freeze, making it seem as if the poor folks put on the blades just to go to work and school during winter. Joshua Cooper Ramo is sorry (and out of a job at NBC) for praising Japan, which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, for its role in Korea’s transformation.
The Canadian Olympic Committee is sorry about a heated “cafeteria discussion” between a member of its team and a Russian. Lee Hee-beom, the president of the PyeongChang Games organizing committee, is sorry for initially excluding Olympians from Iran and North Korea from the more than 4,000 participants who received $1,000 Samsung smartphones as gifts because of international sanctions.
They’re all sorry, very sorry. And, oh, they apologize, too.
What’s with these Winter Olympics? There has been lot of remorse in the first week, and we’re just referencing the high-profile contrition. (And we’re not even including the U.S. Olympic Committee’s apology for its role in the Larry Nassar scandal.) It’s like people want insensitivity to keep pace with the number of norovirus cases here. For many reasons, it’s a delicate time in the world right now, and the hope of the Olympics is always that its spirit will provide more than two weeks of global mascara. As usual, the Games have been fun and full of inspiration, but messes tend to pile up. The Olympics don’t just entertain the world. They reflect, too.
Let’s focus on the U.S. baggage. Fittingly, the problem behind the American contrition involves one of the nation’s biggest current issues: a general deterioration of both tact and the value of words.
White, who won his third halfpipe Olympic gold medal and cemented his snowboarding G.O.A.T. legacy Wednesday, invited further scrutiny of a 2016 lawsuit against him — which he settled for an undisclosed amount with accuser Lena Zawaideh — by dismissing questions about the sexual harassment claims during a news conference. Like a typical star athlete living in fame’s bubble, White acted as if he were above reproach, then realized his “gossip” comment was a mistake and tried to save face by making an apologetic statement and attempting to explain himself on NBC’s “Today” show.
“I’m truly sorry that I chose the word ‘gossip,’ ” White said. “It was a poor choice of words to describe such a sensitive subject in the world today.”
He added: “It’s amazing how life works and twists and turns and lessons learned. Every experience in my life I feel like it’s taught me a lesson, and I definitely feel like I’m a much more changed person than I was when I was younger.”
Put aside what White may or may not have done two years ago. His word choice in that news conference indicated he didn’t take it very seriously. His apology would have you believe that word choice was an honest mistake. Choose what to believe, but because he said both, he’s left that choice to the listener. He hoped to retreat into gold medal deification and learned that being an athletic hero is now a lot more complicated, especially as an alleged harasser in this #MeToo era. So he’s on his knees, begging for leniency.
He will be a fascinating figure moving forward because, unlike others who have been shamed, fired or removed from the spotlight, White is not going to disappear. He wants to compete in the 2020 Olympics, when skateboarding joins the program. He isn’t ruling out participating in the 2022 Winter Games at age 35.
He will return to the spotlight, and if he’s wise, he will do the appropriate soul-searching and show that he’s a sincere and reformed man the next time he is questioned. Only then will we know what was more genuine: his apology or the remark he was apologizing for.
Meanwhile, the NBC trio of Miller, Couric and Ramo have damaged the perception of the network’s Olympic coverage. All of the broadcasting sins were avoidable, but the loose lips weren’t surprising because we live in an era in which it has become acceptable to spout off, push opinions to the edge and not care who’s listening. Are broadcasters, even esteemed ones such as Couric, allowed to make mistakes? Of course. Have they said regrettable things throughout television history? Yes, it’s an imminent consequence of unscripted programming. But it’s not merely a coincidence so many Americans are cramming their feet in their mouths, at these Olympics and beyond, on television and off.
Society is increasingly coarse. It was happening before President Trump, but then the country elected a Twitter troll who has bragged about groping women, called protesting football players “sons of bitches” and introduced “s---hole countries” into our national dialogue. Ignore political leanings. Trump could end up doing great things in office, but he still will go down as our most profane, word-abusing leader. Sadly, he’s just a powerful symptom of the mortifying current discourse.
So here we are: at the Olympics, where many languages are spoken and nations must make an effort to come to the party looking dignified. And instead, many carelessly offend, and then, eventually, realize they’re sorry. Sorry as can be. And then they apologize.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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