Watching the Olympics is definitely a guilty pleasure. I feel like I shouldn’t watch them, but I can’t stop.
Here are the reasons not to watch:
1. The commentators – they tell us what we already know and what we don’t want to know, and top it off with overblown schmaltz. My favorite line so far, Bob Costas on the U.S. women’s gold medal gymnastics team: “Like all Olympic champions, they will now walk together forever.” What does that mean? That their walk from the floor to the medal stand will be televised incessantly for the next few days or years? That they will all be remembered equally? not true. That they will always care about each other? Probably true, but so what? And not only did he say this meaningless line with such gravity, but due to some sloppy editing, he said it twice.
2. The selection. They only show a few of the sports (though I guess if you’re home during the day, you can watch many hours of soccer and kayaking) and a tiny few of the competitors – the Americans and the winners, and sometimes not even all the winners – in the men’s gymnastics team final, they focused so much on the U.S. team that they barely showed the Ukrainian bronze medal team at all. Once upon a time, I remember watching things like archery and weightlifting, but I guess they’ve decided the people who participate in those sports aren’t gorgeous enough for prime time.
3. The obsession with winners and losers. Okay, it’s a competition, it’s about winning. But coming in fourth at the Olympics is just not losing by any stretch. When figure skater Michelle Kwan finished second at the 1998 games, she said to her family on international television, “Hope you still love me.” When gymnast Nastia Liukin was waiting to see if she’d won gold or silver four years ago, her father and coach said, “She didn’t come here to finish second.” I thought, she’d better have won because if she didn’t, her father won’t love her.
When the commentators talk incessantly about the heartbreak of coming in second or fourth, the catastrophe of not having a good meet, they ignore the obvious fact that someone has to finish fourth and even last. If it’s our girl, we cry for her; if it’s someone else’s favorite, we cheer. The British crowd went wild when the Japanese team screwed up because it meant their guys won silver. Understandable, but did anyone stop to think about what the Japanese guys were feeling?
Even with the Americans, once they drop out of medal contention, they drop off our screens as if they were never there. What happened to John Orozco after he fell from grace on Wednesday night? They spent days getting us to root for the guy, and then he totally disappeared.
4. Michael Phelps. Someone I would just not want to spend one second listening to, who happens to be a freakishly talented athlete. I cannot reach for the remote fast enough when he steps out of the pool. Though to be honest, I haven’t heard an athlete give a good interview this year.
5. People critiquing things they can’t do themselves. A coworker of mine is an ice dancer. She started skating pretty late in life, which I admire enormously, and she’s gotten very good for essentially a recreational skater (though with the expense and injuries she’s had to bear, it’s hard to call it “recreation”). She doesn’t like watching freestyle skating and says the triple jumps the Olympic champions do aren’t very hard. Once I asked, “So how many can you do?” Of course, she said, “Well I can’t do any.” I know what she’s trying to say – that we’ve lost appreciation for the technique of pure skating, without the Wow Factor of big jumps and spins – but it still doesn’t make sense to me to say that a triple-triple or quad-triple combination isn’t hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it because they all want to win. If you’re the only woman in the world who can do something, it might not be what a sophisticated viewer enjoys watching, but it’s obviously difficult.
Of course, Olympic television coverage is not geared to the educated viewer. People watch baseball, football and golf week after week, and develop an understanding of the finer points of what’s involved. In sports like gymnastics, skating and diving, which most of us watch every four years, the audience is inevitably going to be seduced by the big high-flying skills and not necessarily what people who have actually learned the sport know to look for.
That’s what they pay the analysts for, and that’s why they harp on the tiny hops on the dismounts or the fact that a diver bounced their toes twice before leaving the springboard. But those commentators can’t do the skills they’re picking apart either, because most of them competed decades ago, and the sports have evolved light years since then. Olga Korbut was the first gymnast I remember becoming a household name in this country, back in 1972. She did a single back somersault on the balance beam, and the officials considered outlawing the move after that because it seemed so dangerous. That same year Kathy Rigby, the top U.S. gymnast, left out her one planned aerial cartwheel on the beam in hopes of helping her team win the bronze, which they didn’t. Now every beam routine must include at least one somersault and the gymnasts are doing one aerial move after another, some with twists.
|I pass this mural on my way home|
from West Oakland.
6. The commercials. I mostly don’t watch them, but every now and then you accidentally catch one. They’re so obnoxious. There’s the homophobic one for Matthew Perry’s new show, with Shawn Johnson and the guy in the Star Spangled Spandex, and then there’s NBC’s unfortunate airing of their “Animal Kingdom” promo right after calling attention to the fact that Gabby Douglas is first African American gymnast to win an individual Olympic gold. Then there are the annoying “Thank You Mom” ones, which I guess are selling Proctor & Gamble cleaning products, Visa’s soft-focus “Go World” series featuring the caramel voice of Morgan Freeman, and just to break it up, Barack Obama promising to really create jobs if we give him another chance.
7. The knowledge that neighborhoods were destroyed and millions of dollars taken from London’s crumbling social infrastructure, while laws intended to regulate corporate exploitation of the Games are being used to stifle free speech.
Here are the reasons to watch:
1. The athletes are amazing.
2. The athletes are amazing.
3. The athletes are amazing.
4. There’s nothing else to watch.