Sunday, August 17

:: And now, a word on the Olympics

I have a confession, to you, my friends. And I hope you are my friends. Because I have to confess:

I am so over the Olympics. I do not have Olympic fever, unless by Olympic fever you mean an infection that you're desperately trying to get rid of with heavy doses of antibiotics.

In all fairness, it's not the games generally, just the way they are presented by NBC. There are so many interesting and bizarre sports, but what do we get to see? Swimming and beach volleyball. Swimming and beach volleyball. And more swimming and beach volleyball. We don't get to see Equestrian, archery, field hockey or badminton, unless you stay home from work, or don't sleep.

In protest (and out of boredom) I gave up on watching on Wednesday. I read the Times' Dining section and watched Project Runway. I tried to watch gymnastics, but I ran out of steam at midnight. (I really don't understand how they can call 11 p.m. - 1 a.m. "primetime.) Occasionally I watch video of the Equestrian competition online, but it's not the same as on my TV, and too hard to knit or fold laundry.

Here's my beef: NBC isn't reporting on a great athletic competition. They are reporting on world domination. Who's competing with Michael Phelps, exactly? Noone. His races have hardly even been close. Bless his heart, the man is a freak of nature. He is physically built to do what he does, and he does nothing else but what he does. If we are to believe the NBC profile, his primary relationships are with his dog, his mother and his coach. Did he even go to college? Is he in any way capable of doing anything for the world besides swimming?

And beach volleyball. Really? During prime time, the most compelling competition is beach volleyball?? Not women's soccer? Not track and field? I understand track is quite popular, and frankly, I'd love to see the high jump. I will concede that cycling is boring after about two minutes. I say this as someone who spends a lot of the warmer months on the back of a bike, and I think that's the only good spot of the race - on the back of a bike. But what about show jumping or dressage? Did you check that out? Of course not; you could only do that online and there would have been no detailed explanation of what you were seeing because NBC isn't even bothering to comment on it.

Other fascinating sports:

  • Fencing: people swordfighting!
  • Synchronized swimming: remember when you danced in the pool as a kid? An Olympic sport for kids games!
  • Diving: like the circus, only more naked and wet!
Did you know that in Rowing, for the first time in nearly 25 years, the U.S. won the gold in the Women's 8? These women have jobs, kids, families and still manage to be Olympic champions. When Michael Phelps can pull that off, I'll be impressed and glued to my television for his races. But did you see that on TV? Sure if you were looking on one of the secondary channels in the middle of the day.

I guess I'm feeling particularly miffed because an African friend was ranting before the games about the particularly jingoistic nature of Olympics coverage in the U.S., ignoring so many really interesting and inspiring news stories and competitions in order to focus on a few American champions. I attempted to argue that we were hardly alone in focusing on those sports we were likely to win and of course, with a country as large as ours, that's a lot. I mean, even Olympians from other nations (including Zimbabwe) train in the U.S.!

But, as with so much in the U.S., this year's coverage feels completely out of hand, and I'm finding it really hard to defend. We're not even focusing on a range of events that Americans are likely to win. We're just focused on a couple of Americans that are likely to clean up. And frankly, I'm just over it.


RS said...

As my mum asked the other day - in equestrian events, who gets the medal - the horse or the jockey?!

I agree on beach volleyball - as my cab driver said, that was probably put forth as an Olympic sport by a bunch of cigar-smoking guys...

And I do wish NBC showed the women's marathon winner - 38-year-old, mother-of-a-teenager Constantina Tomescu-Dita - receive her well-deserved gold medal. Instead of more Phelps-mania (interviews/prep/etc - not the actual event!)

And as my Australian friend fumed the other day - NBC just said the US won the bronze in relay swimming (probably women's?), with nary a mention of the Aussie team that took gold...

Sometimes, it's nice to be from a country where the sole medal-winner is in air-rifle-shooting, which nobody wants to see anyway. [The Indian field hockey team even failed to qualify...]

Finally, I leave you with this:


ladybec said...

I'm not sure I can make a well-reasoned argument in response to Zippy, but I'll just say that I still love the Olympics, and I don't think NBC's coverage has been that bad. (BTW, I think they had equestrian coverage on yesterday afternoon - yes, Sunday afternoon, on the main NBC channel, and the rowing, too, which I think is pretty good timing.) Not everything can be in primetime, even with NBC's expanded definition, especially almost any of the team sports. I think they are really struggling with the Beijing time difference - the events were planned in the morning so they would be in American primetime (now we could argue about what it means that the whole world plans their athletic events for our viewing pleasure, but that's another post), and now they are going so much later than planned.

Truthfully, Michael Phelps is a huge story - there's a reason why Mark Spitz's record lasted for 36 years or whatever it was, and it's a big deal that he broke it. And two of the races were incredibly close - I still can't believe he won that 100M race. Plus, while NBC hasn't focused that much on it, I found the interview with him and his mom incredibly moving - when they talked about him growing up with ADHD and how swimming gave him much needed focus, how he was often bullied as a kid (and you can almost tell that he probably was incredibly awkward since that body that makes him so good at swimming must have been hard for him to grow into), how he grew up the child of a single mom and how it's clear that his coach has become his father figure. I actually think overall NBC has done a good job of pointing out the sacrifices these athletes make in various ways - they achieve incredible things, but these aren't lives you or I would necessarily want to have.

I also think that NBC has focused on several athletes beyond the American ones, but let's face it - American TV viewers want to know about American athletes. I'll be the first to admit that I am somewhat bored when I am watching a somewhat random event, and there are no Americans competing. I think any country's coverage would be the same. And as Zippy points out, not only are many other countries' athletes training here, many of them are actually American citizens who live here and have parents from other countries and have decided that it would be easier to make the Olympic teams in those countries and compete for them, instead of for the U.S., which is an interesting situation itself.

On the beach volleyball note, I have to admit I enjoy it. I also think it gets a lot of coverage because I believe we invented it, and there aren't a lot of sports we can say that about. Plus, our women's team has now won 107 matches in a row, which is apparently an unbelievable feat. So while I think it's easy to be dismissive, it's also a sport that looks really hard to me when I think about it, and while the team can only win one medal, they are quite accomplished in the sport.

I will say that my one criticism of NBC is that they have been rather reluctant to cover any of the controversies surrounding China, even the somewhat minor ones like the ages of the Chinese gymnasts. I really can't believe that they are all 16, and there seems to be good evidence to the contrary, and NBC has barely even mentioned the controversy. You wonder what they have to give up to be able to get the "access" they want from the host country...

(My other complaint is the scoring in gymnastics, but that isn't actually NBC's fault. I don't know what's going on with some of that, but the Chinese seem to be getting some higher scores than they really deserve, and they seem to keep coming at the expense of the Americans. Hmmm...)

I know I probably won't convince any of you, but the Olympics are the one sporting event that I actually love and spend an enormous amount of time watching. And I have been very much enjoying them so far. I'm hoping to get to see them in person one of these days - perhaps Vancouver in 2010? Or if Chicago gets them in 2016?