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Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Make the invisible athletes visible

By James A. Swan, Ph.D.
Author of "In Defense of Hunting"

The eyes of the world are on Athens, where the Summer Olympics is unfolding. Many of the athletes are appearing on the covers of popular magazines and in splashy newspaper stories and yet, like in George Orwell's "Animal Farm," all are equal but some are more equal than others.

Historically, the U.S. Olympic shooting team has won the third largest total of medals in any Olympic sport, after track and field and swimming. But shotgun, rifle, pistol and archery competitions get little recognition in the US print or TV coverage.

Shooting sports do better in the mainstream press abroad.

In Switzerland, target shooting is the national pastime and a true passion. The winter biathlon is extremely popular in Europe. There were more people watching the biathlon in Lillehammer than any other event. The flag bearers of many European nations are shooting sports competitors.

In the United States, however, shooting sports seldom get more than a footnote in coverage. The lack of American reporting on Olympic shooting events makes these competitors "invisible athletes" and another sad example of negative mainstream media bias against shooting sports.

If you aren't that familiar with the shooting events, let me give you a brief overview.

Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. Four nations participated in the first games. Today there are 18 different firearms shooting sports events in the Summer Olympics, and eight biathlon events in the Winter Olympics.

There are 202 countries participating in the Athens Games. In Sydney, 403 shooters from 103 nations competed in shooting. In Athens, there will be 390 competitive shooters — 40 percent female and 60 percent male.

There are 17 strictly firearms shooting events. Without going into detail, they include trap, skeet, rifle, air rifle, pistol, air pistol and running target. Pistol shooting also is one of the five events of the modern pentathlon — shooting, fencing, jumping on horses, running and swimming.

There are four archery events — men and women's individual and team.

In both the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics, more nations participate in the shooting sports events than in any other. The International Paralympics also feature 16 shooting sport events.

China led Olympic rifle, pistol and shotgun shooting in Sydney with eight total medals, including three golds, and they are off to a fast start in Athens. The first Olympic gold medal of the 2004 Games was in Women's Air Rifle, and China's Li Du, scoring an Olympic record total of 502, won it.

My newspaper did not list TV coverage of any shooting events in the first few days.

Why should people know more and care about shooting sports?

Despite the enormous global popularity and safety of shooting sports, they receive almost no notice in United Nations discussions of small arms. The UN in fact is encouraging member nations to hold public destruction of small arms.

United Nations Resolution 50/13, adopted in November 1995, affirms its continued support for the Olympic Games as a vehicle for supporting world peace, a better world and the "well-being of mankind." As shooting sports are part of the Olympics, Resolution 50/13 implicitly endorses firearms sports.

It would seem appropriate that the UN should recognize this in their discussions of small arms, because shooting sports athletes are role models for how people should use firearms safely and sanely.

The absence of balanced discussion and reporting of shooting sports in policy-making discourse and mainstream media casts an unfair veil of suspicion and fear over shooting athletes, making them easy targets for demonizing, stigmatizing, stereotyping and scapegoating that often has little basis in facts and fosters a cultural paranoia that makes people more anxious. For each culture, heroes set cultural standards for desirable behavior including ethics, bravery, courage and service.

Historically, warriors and hunters have been cultural heroes for they protect and provide for the community. They not only set standards of behavior, they serve as role models of maturity and socially sanctioned uses of weapons. In these times, we need heroes to help us understand the place of weapons in our lives.

Some argue that in search of peace we should socialize youth to deny or sublimate their natural aggression, especially its translation into shooting sports. The eminent psychologist Rollo May has written of the danger in such thinking:

In the utopian aim of removing all power and aggression from human behaviour, we run the risk of removing self-assertion, self-affirmation, and even the power to be. If it were successful, it would breed a race of docile, passive eunuchs and would lay the groundwork for an explosion in violence that would dwarf all those that have occurred so far.

Cheer for the shooting athletes

So, as the Olympics take over the media, you who do enjoy shooting sports please remember the USA Shooting team. Visit the web sites for USA Shooting, USA Pentathlon and USA Archery. Tune in to see how they are doing.

Most important, cheer! Libby Callahan, competing in air pistol and sport pistol, is the oldest U.S. Olympic athlete at 52. Collyn Loper, at 17, the youngest member of the Olympic shooting squad, is blind in one eye.

Two-time medalist in double trap Kim Rhode, who is competing with more injuries than gymnast Kerri Strug, has won the gold in double trap in Athens. This makes Rhode the only person to win the first and last in any Olympic event, as women's double trap is being removed from the Games after Athens.

Seven of the 28 members of the USA shooting team are full-time members of the Army.

The shooters are just as legitimate as any other athletes in Athens. They put in enormous hours of practice, develop extraordinary conditioning, strength, discipline and concentration. They deal with injuries just like all other athletes.

As the Olympics unfold and you find yourself engaged in conversations about what is taking place, make a point of bringing up the subject of the shooting events. Many people don't even know they exist.

The more we can spotlight those role models, the stronger shooting sports become. And that means that shooters of all kinds will be spared from undeserved negative stereotype projections just because they are so invisible.

Weapons are part of us. They originate in the creative depths of the human soul. If we do not learn how to use them wisely and respectfully, the fear of them will rule us.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.