My love for the Olympics is like my love for the Oscars: the enjoyment I get out of each is almost in spite of the events themselves. I love movies. I love sports. And, being a “professional appreciator” as Nick Hornby once put it, I look forward to these showdowns where the best of each world, in theory, compete to determine, empirically, which is the best (actor, sprinter, writer, I dunno, shot putter, etc.) Unfortunately, both the Oscars and the Olympics muddy that idea of pure competition with hype, politics, bias, and, of course, money. Indie films and original voices are lucky to score a pity nomination amongst the monied major studio product, and it’s considered a victory if, say, the Nigerian basketball team can score half as many points as a team of vacationing NBA millionaires. For the Olympics, throw in American television coverage which elevates certain high profile US athletes to media celebrities (thanks to self-promotion, or a tv-friendly story of perseverance), and the unabashed homerism of the whole enterprise, and it’s easy to feel your idealism sprint the other way.
But even in the most pre-packaged evening’s Olympic entertainment (or overproduced Oscar telecast), I can reliably anticipate a moment or two when, for all the weaknesses and inequalities of the system, I, catching a glimpse of genuine, unaffected emotion, or gratitude, or unalloyed or unexpected triumph, feel that something, maybe just one thing, for one moment, in these utterly inessential pursuits (which I regard as quite essential indeed) is as it should be. That’s how they get you…
Of course, America isn’t shall we say overthinking things in quite the same way. NBC’s ratings are huge for these tape-delayed Olympics, with all the partisan programming going down easy, and no one seeming to care that they can know nearly every outcome ahead of time: “Oh, let’s all watch the Olympics tonight- I can’t wait to see the part when that little black girl wins.” All of TV watching America is like the mom at the video store who’ll only rent Big Miracle if you’ll assure her that the whales are okay at the end. Apart from the #NBCfail snarkers, the country seems so amenable to a completely SPOILER-ed Olympics, I’d be surprised if the network isn’t hoping for future games to be played in other non-US, time delay-friendly sites from now on.
But for all its seeming programming savvy, I’m shocked at the colossal misstep NBC makes in tonight’s show. Tom Brokaw is wheeled out at the top to salute his “greatest generation” with a lengthy (50-plus minutes, five commercial breaks) WWII history lesson about how host country Great Britain, with their “British resolve,” (and some help from the good ol’ USA!) fought off the Nazis. It’s an utterly perplexing opening to the broadcast: viewers tuning in to watch the US win some medals and instead having to check that they’re not on the History Channel are flipping stations and heading out for a sandwich, and I wager some of them aren’t returning. I suppose some of those bewildered watchers might be switching over to live coverage on the lesser NBCs, but for the flagship, this can’t be ratings gold. Also, it’s a crisply patriotic little documentary (and Tom gets an old man to cry), but as a prelude to an event whose purported message is one of peaceful competition transcending national hostilities, isn’t its message a touch antithetical? (Plus it’s going to make it hard to root for any German athletes tonight.)
Hey look! It’s a sport! Specifically, the men’s ten-meter platform diving. I’ll echo much of Corey’s diving analysis from Friday (being next to last in this Olympic coverage means all the good opinions have been taken): As with most events, I’m in awe of the athleticism, but can’t say the NBC analysts have given me any more insight into what makes a great dive other than the incessant splash/no splash comparisons. The “splashometer” is a neat, video game-style graphic but, again, other than the relative splashiness (and not smashing your coconut on the platform or landing in a flat belly flop), that seems to be the only damn thing that matters. One direct question whether judges deduct for sound as well as splash on entry elicits a pause and a noncommittal non-answer. And Alex Flanagan asking former champ, and last night’s feel good story, Australian Matthew Mitcham “how disappointing is that?” after he fails to qualify for the finals made me, once again, wonder exactly how much provocation it would take to make it acceptable for an athlete to just shove one of these utterly vapid and unnecessary sideline reporters into the pool. Memo to all sports: sideline reporters add nothing and make everything worse. All that being said, the tightly edited, back and forth battle between American David Boudia and Brit Tom Daley (eventual Chinese silver medalist Qui Bo, being, you know, from far away and Asian gets short shrift), is described as them “throwing heavyweight punches at each other”, and that’s not inaccurate.
Then we’re off to men’s distance runners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp being interviewed by Ryan Seacrest, where his softball, celeb-fluffing question stylings suit the runners’ pally “if I can’t win it, I hope he does” platitudes. In the race itself, the deceptively leisurely starting pace allows the commentators some time to analyze things, and they acquit themselves better: it’s welcome to hear some social commentary about Brits allowing themselves to root for a man named Mohamed, although one wonders if there’ll be a trickle-down effect for all the other non-Olympian Mohameds walking the streets of London. Plus, my admiration for the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits fools me into thinking I have some insight into the agonizing mental and physical chess match of the sport. Here, the announcer’s increasingly breathless analysis as the runners go all out in the final lap works with the action in one of my favorite track events. Plus, home town guy Farah wins. Everybody’s happy.
Women’s high jump is next and these are just grasshopper/gazelle people. It’s that stagger-stepped sideways approach to the jump which, coupled with the mad, twisting ups these women get, marks them as perhaps the most uniquely impressive athletes to me. Plus, there’s not much I need the announcers for here: do whatever insane contortions you have to to get over that bar. Pretty fascinating to watch.
Then we cut to the women’s 800 meter final, where it takes approximately three seconds for Caster Semenya’s gender controversy to get a mention, and it’s that narrative that dominates the brief race (won by Russian Mariya Saminova), since the Americans finish off the podium and NBC’s coverage only allows for one storyline per event.
After spending another 40 minutes on the platform, Costas tells us what we just saw and then promises some exciting 4X400 American women’s relay action. As it’s 10:43 at this point, we’re in the “rush through and show some Americans win 2nd or 3rd place before we sign off” portion of the evening, although the US women’s relay team soundly destroyed everyone in the field, as did the deservedly ubiquitous Usain Bolt who, alongside his Jamaican 4X100 relay teammates, blew up another world record, winning the gold.
So that’s the next-to-last night of the Olympics: one feel good American victory story, one home country feel good story, an American trouncing, some late night Bolt. Among the Saturday events not mentioned in NBC’s primetime coverage tonight: javelin, women’s basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, field hockey, football, handball, modern pentathalon, sailing, taekwando, wrestling.
At least we found out who won World War II.
-What are people talking about with the London Olympic logo? I don’t…oh yeah-there it is.
-During the opening hour tonight I saw more actual Olympic action in the commercial montages for my local news.
-At least the inexplicable WWII documentary called out notorious Jew-hater Charles Lindbergh for his “America First” isolationism. Shame it doesn’t similarly air out pal Henry Ford for the same reasons. Maybe because NBC doesn’t need commercials paid for by the Lindbergh Motor Company.
-A clip from baby faced Brit diver Tom Daly’s embarrassingly goofy Youtube video refreshingly underscores that most of these Olympians have something of the dumb jock left inside the training machines they’ve become.
-Getting ready for his big final dive, Daley appears to deliberately pull a hair out each thigh. Is that a thing?
-American gold medal diver David Boudia looks like a meaner Simon Tam.
-Judging by her eye makeup, relay racer Deedee Trotter appears to have been assimilated by the Borg. Take that Oscar Pistorious!
-Bob Costas is getting good at verb tense Twister, teasing events that have already happened for maximum hindsighted, vaguely condescending analysis. It’s like The Newsroom Olympics.