August 21, 2008

I should have trained just to watch the Olympics

As I'm sure is true with most people, I've been spending far more time watching the Olympics (and far less time sleeping as a result) than I expected to this year. What's been more surprising, though, is what I have, and have not, been seeing. For example:

- Almost zero coverage of men's basketball and women's soccer in prime time. Not just no games shown, since those clearly take place in the evenings in China (mornings here), but no mention of their progress. When I started writing this post, the US women's soccer team was playing Brazil for the gold medal, but you wouldn't have known from listening to the NBC coverage last night or any night previous. The basketball team has been crushing everyone they've played, but again, no highlights and no discussion in prime-time coverage. Strange, considering how popular the women's team is, and even more so given the attention paid to men's basketball this year.

It's even more conspicuous when you consider that the events shown in the past two days' prime time coverage have mostly been re-runs (track is an evening event in China as well). So while I'm happy to see Usain Bolt smash a couple of world records, I'm puzzled as to why the NBC brass seem to think that the 400m hurdles are more interesting to the American sports audience than the Redeem Team. Or Heather Mitts, for that matter.

- More volleyball coverage than I thought possible for a US audience. I'm not just talking about women's beach, either; there's no secret about why that's popular (15% the fact that the US owns the event, 85% tall, athletic women in barely-there bikinis). But I've seen coverage of men's and women's indoor, which during the other 3 years and 49 weeks of the year I'm pretty sure wouldn't even get broadcast on The Ocho. It helps, certainly, that the US teams are doing well, but still.

And I hope that you stayed up to watch Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh win the gold medal last night. That was a seriously good volleyball match. I hadn't really been a fan of the change to rally scoring in volleyball before last night (although I still think that allowing net-cord serves to count is absurd, but that's a whole different post). Watching Walsh and May afterwards, though, was almost as entertaining as the match itself. Bob Costas, proving once again why he's in on virtually every important sports broadcast, summed it up nicely after Walsh and May's interview, saying the team was going off to find more people to hug*.

I do have to give a nod to the NBC people, though, for the availability of free live streams on, although my employer would probably go with a wag of the finger. I've caught some of the above-mentioned basketball and soccer, and I've even checked out some less-popular events thanks to their streams (tae kwon do, for example, which it turns out is not nearly as interesting as I had expected).

The other thing you get from watching the streams, it turns out, is the value of color commentary in sports broadcasts. The streams on the website are commentary-free, which is fine if you're very familiar with a sport and the people playing it, but it does pose a problem for the casual fan: no context. You get to see what's happening now, but you have no idea (other than the scoreboard) of what happened previously. Or in the event of overtime (again, gold medal match in women's soccer), someone like me isn't entirely familiar with the structure of overtime (two overtime periods, apparently) and there isn't an expert on the screen to catch up the unfamiliar.

There are a couple of things that bug me, though. Two of them are by no means specific to the Olympics, but the beefed-up nature of the attention just makes them more glaring. And more annoying.

1) Hyperbole. Michael Phelps is amazing, no question. I don't even blink an eye when someone says he's the greatest swimmer of all time. That's fine. But greatest Olympian of all time? And to set up Mark Spitz with that softball question (please; Spitz is a swimmer, and it's his record(s) that Phelps just beat, so what do you suppose his answer is going to be?) is kind of like asking the Hershey's people whether they prefer chocolate or vanilla. It's absurd. Eight gold medals is quite an achievement, but I'm not sure how you compare that to other Olympic events, since I'm fairly sure that swimming affords the most opportunities for medals, with less variety in skills required. Compare swimming (four strokes, all in the pool) with decathlon, for example. Which do you suppose takes more comprehensive athletic ability to excel? And yet, the winner of that event, after winning (or staying very close to the top) of ten different events. How do you compare the two?

And that's leaving for a second how we should define greatness in the first place. Do they really mean to say that Michael Phelps is somehow more important to the Olympics, or sports generally, than someone like Jesse Owens? Or overcame injury like Kerri Strugg? There's no way to compare them, and I don't see the point in trying. We should all simply raise our glasses to Phelps, congratulate him, and leave it at that.

And also share in the joy that, if absolutely nothing else, we beat China. Because that's what's it's really about, isn't it?

2) Interviewing the losers. Seriously, this has to stop. Not just in the Olympics (but especially in the Olympics). As if losing isn't bad enough, they then have to come and make nice with the sideline reporter, pretend they aren't disintegrating inside, just to give the producers a few seconds of good tape. It's sick.

Last night, they insisted on interviewing Wallace Spearmon roughly 12 seconds after he learned he was losing his silver medal in the 200m sprint due to a disqualification. The interviewer actually asked him how he felt. How he felt? Are you kidding? And they follow it up by dragging the 15-year-old American diver in front of a camera, just after she didn't qualify for the finals, and again, asking her how she felt. Is there some mystery there? Like we don't know? I'm waiting for the day someone responds like this (NSFW for language; skip to 3:00 if you don't want to watch the whole bit):

What they should say (especially to the diver) is this: We understand how you feel, there's no need to tell us. All you need to know is that there are 300 million people on the other side of that camera who are proud of you for being there, for representing your country and giving it everything you have. That's it. Then shut up and toss it back to Costas.

3) The IOC. We've all heard by now about how the IOC not only dropped the ball but kicked it into traffic on this whole how-old-are-those-Chinese-gymnasts-anyway issue. That's fine, I guess; at this point the IOC serves as little more than a punch line. But really, if you're going to dodge something as fundamental as whether countries are following the rules that you've written in the interest of fair play, then maybe you should just stay quiet, period.

But no. I guess they eschewed looking into something as trivial as eligibility of elite athletes for competition because they are preoccupied with matters as weighty and significant as over-celebration. It just warms my soul to know that the IOC has its priorities straight: Catering and pandering to the host nation, ignoring the tenets you're charged to oversee? Check. Sticking your nose into easily the least important development in the entire three weeks of competition, solely so that you get on camera for a few seconds and appear relevant? Check. Looking like a douche in front of roughly 5 billion people in the process? Check, check, and double-check.

Then again, maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm just cranky from the lack of sleep. I'm sure I'll look back and think about things differently starting Tuesday, once all this is over.

Maybe, but I seriously doubt it.

* This may not make a whole lot of sense if you didn't catch the broadcast, but it was absolutely perfect in context.
Site Meter