I’m pretty ambivalent about the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremonies so that I could hear the announcer say “ceremony” the British way, and because I love a good national spectacle. I was thrilled to hear Branagh recite Shakespeare, I am always teary when I hear the opening strains of “Jerusalem,” and I admired the man-made Tor that acted as centerpiece to Danny Boyle’s history of Great Britain.
He lost me somewhere around the Industrial Revolution hand jive, and I was kind of skeeved out by the childrens’ nightmare sequence with “Tubular Bells” and a gigantic baby; taken as a whole, the idea seemed to be that children were tucked into bed at Great Ormond Street Hospital by smiling, dancing doctors and nurses and then abandoned to nightmarish characters from literature until they were all saved by a fleet of Mary Poppinses. Presumably the Marys speared Voldemort, The Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, et al with their proper British bumbershoots and eased the minds of all of us who associate “Tubular Bells’ with Linda Blair’s green and rotating head.
But I digress. My problem with the Olympics has nothing to do with its location (a place, frankly, that I would rather be than where I actually am) and everything to do with sports-related media. If a person is interested in watching Olympic coverage during prime time, which is the only time we watch television in this house, one is necessarily watching network coverage. Network coverage is kind of like “American Idol” with contestants who swim, vault and run. Favorites are cultivated, highlighted and vignetted; we are basically fed everything we need to know about who will probably win, who we should like, and why.
This phenomenon is not unique to Olympic coverage. It’s a sports thing. Several years ago when I became a rabid fan of college basketball, I actually watched sports on TV for the first time. They had been on around me my whole life - I grew up in a Big Ten town – but for forty years I was just passing by the TV on my way to find my book. When I began to watch televised college basketball, I noticed that it was hard to pay attention to the game because of those people who talked CONSTANTLY from tipoff to final buzzer. In one memorable game against The University of Texas, the commentators were so smitten with a guy named Kevin Durant that our team could have shot forty consecutive three-pointers and they would have continued to talk about the life and times of “Kevin Durant, KEVIN DURANT, KEVIN DURANT!!!!!!”
Apparently this kind of thing is par for the course as color commentary, but I know that the thrill of going to a game and watching with my own eyes, making my own judgments, and having my own hopes about the outcome is infinitely preferable to having Dick Vitale tell me that my team is outmatched and totally doomed halfway through the first half.
It wasn’t always this way, either. At least the Olympics weren’t. I remember falling in love with Dwight Stones the summer I was ten. I picked him out by myself (because I was ten and he was cute) and watched coverage of Track and Field events during the 1972 Summer Olympics with religious fervor so that I could see if Dwight had an event that day, and find out how he did.
I may be remembering it wrong, but it seems that there was never a touching vignette about Dwight’s personal life set to gooey pop music, and although he was a strong favorite based on his record, other competitors were not completely eclipsed in the commentary. We knew Dwight was good, we thought he’d probably win, but we could watch him run and jump without the benefit of someone telling us that he was running, jumping, favored, running well, jumping high, liked to kick back with a bag of Cheetos and drink root beer in his hometown of Los Angeles, jumping over the bar and landing, and...you get the idea.
I guess that’s part of my issue with the current setup: every single athlete at the Olympics has a story, they all sacrificed, and they can all do things physically and emotionally that most of us can’t imagine. What effect does it have, psychologically, not to be a “favorite?” How does it feel to be on a team with someone who is charismatic, or has a great story, when you are just someone who has worked your ass off to make the Olympic team? Why should the girls on the Gymnastics team be interviewed about how excited they were to meet Michael Phelps? He is, after all, no better an athlete than any one of them. They are all American kids on American Olympic teams. He’s just a much more famous athlete than any of them because he was successful, he’s handsome, and he has an interesting backstory.
If I were a hardcore sports fan I would find a channel that streamed Olympic events as they happened, with minimal commentary. I’m not, and I won’t, although I think the Canadians do a pretty great job at that kind of thing. If I could tune in to NBC at 7:00 or 8:00 and just watch footage of the day’s main events, just be swept up and hold my breath to see if that one, cute boy I picked out was the fastest, I’d be in. As it is, I’ll probably watch reruns of “Cold Case” or read my book.
Good luck to every single athlete competing – upset the odds, flabbergast the spinmeisters, and win because you worked hard and you deserve it.
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.