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Judy’s Notebook | The Olympics: ‘A Lot More Than Sport’

We had a friendly disagreement at our morning planning meeting Tuesday about what the television program’s lead story should be. It’s a conversation we have every morning, but this particular day it went on a little longer than usual. Many times we know the “lead” when we first gather because events in Syria, on the presidential campaign trail, or out of the Supreme Court, for example, cry out to be told first. Tuesday wasn’t one of those days.

Our choices were: Syria, where there were not significant developments overnight; power blackouts in India affecting an area with a population of over 600 million; or the Summer Olympics. I made the point that the sheer number of people affected in India – more than twice the population of the U.S. – justified putting it at the top of the show.

Others, mindful of an American audience captivated by the London games, and the new role being played by social media in their coverage, pushed for the Olympics.

A typical NewsHour planning meeting. Photo by P.J. Tobia

Our executive producer made the call for the Olympics, and my colleague Gwen Ifill made sure the report and interviews on the games shed plenty of light on the subject.

Later, I watched 16 year-old Gabby Douglas, the utterly captivating American gymnast, on the balance beam and in her floor routine, followed by men’s swimming sensation Michael Phelps, first losing out on the gold and then making medal history with the help of his U.S. teammates. And I was again reminded of the way these prodigies work their way into our hearts. There’s something about them we can’t take our eyes off of: the freshness and (in some) the innocence of youth, combined with the sheer power and the awesome skill they demonstrate. I couldn’t stop staring at the five expectant faces of the American women’s gymnastics team as they looked up in unison at the scoreboard, waiting to see their final ranking. They exploded with cheers and hugs when they saw the USA was first.

But it’s not just the American athletes who are thrilling. The Chinese, the British and plenty of others are riveting to watch, as is a collection of photos reminding us of what a breakthrough the Olympics represent for countries that either haven’t always welcomed the games in a healthy way, or haven’t welcomed the participation of women. I challenge you to look at this week’s photo spread in Foreign Policy magazine of women athletes from Arab countries, and not be touched by what you see.

And while I would have been comfortable opening Tuesday’s program with the India blackout, I was happy with the way the lead segment worked out. There’s a lot more than sport in the Olympics.

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