Canada’s Penny Wins Gold! (Not that NBC Noticed…)

Aug 12, 2016

USA’s Simone Manuel and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak tied for Olympic gold in the women’s 100 Free… A case study in the bias of knee-jerk nationalism and getting so caught up in one moment, you miss the other… 

Look, I get it. This was a lot more than another American winning gold. This was the first African-American woman ever to win an individual Olympic swimming medal. This was big and it was bad ass and Simone Manuel deserves every bit of love and praise coming her way.

But here’s a quick memo for the good folks at NBC calling and producing these races: She TIED.

The other gold medalist, the equal gold medalist, was a 16-year-old Canadian by the name of Penny Oleksiak. A swimmer who is now the greatest ever in Canadian Olympic history. At 16-years-old, that swim stamps Penny as Canada’s all-time best in an Olympic swimming pool.

This isn’t just a foot-stomping former Canadian Olympian ranting about one his own not getting her due. This was poor pro-USA television. This was about getting so swept up in one achievement that the other, equal champion got this: An afterthought tag about “what an Olympics Penny Oleksiak is having” while the going-to-commercial music cued up.

At four Olympics, in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008, I was among the NBC team. At each of those Games, and I’m sure at every one before and since, every production staffer was required to attend a do’s and don’ts seminar right before the Olympics began. It was mostly a rah-rah self-congratulatory show for the pooh-bahs who ran things from the control rooms, but it was also a repetitive reminder to cool it with the Go-USA crap. Something that, no matter how many reminders, never ceases to seep deeply into the NBC broadcast of the Olympics.

Depending on your nationality and your level of pro-American tolerance, that seminar reminder succeeds between sometimes and seldom. Mostly, you learn to tolerate it. Every other country’s telecast is guilty of the same; it’s just that Team USA is so consistently better than other countries at the Games that it becomes obnoxious when it’s coming from the winners.

I’ve been through the looking glass. I’m both American and Canadian, a dual-citizen. But when the Olympics come around, or any international competition for that matter, consider me 100% Canadian. I’ve lived most of my life in the US, and I continue to make it my home – albeit in New York City, which really should be a sovereign land like the Vatican, but that’s another story… Nonetheless, I’m American by parents and education and majority of time spent; I’m Canadian by birth; first memories; proudest memories; and an indefinable outsider pride that will never ever make me fully American. (I make it personal here only to establish perspective…)

Tonight that perspective was challenged, and one side was outraged. Thrilled as I am for Simone Manuel, I’m also stunned that perhaps the greatest Canadian in Olympic history was relegated to a footnote on a live broadcast that reached hundreds of millions in North America. 

Penny Oleksiak is the Olympic Champion in the women’s 100 freestyle. So is Simone Manuel.

You’d never know they shared the top of the podium if you watched the race in America.