Saturday, August 4, 2012

Olympics, Week 1: The Good, the Bad,
and the Rest of the World

Like a lot of people, I spent this past week glued to the TV, soaking up the Olympics. For me, it’s been an early-morning thing, hanging out on NBC’s “other” stations, the ones on channel eleventy-twelve that cover the sports I never see anywhere else, like archery and team handball and trampoline. As always, the Olympics are expanding my view of what’s cool, what’s possible, and what’s too freakin’ hard for me to ever try. But it hasn’t been all fun and Games. With all due respect to our talented American athletes, NBC is once again dedicating pretty much all of its prime-time coverage to them, while snubbing the rest of the world. And it’s a big world, with a lot of great Olympians—Olympians we will never get to know, thanks to NBC’s jingoistic journalism. But more about that later. First, the good stuff.

Cough, gag, sputter…gooooooooooal!!!!!
My favorite sport this week has been water polo. It’s just flat-out brutal, with more pummeling than taekwando and more dirty hits than hockey. The whole premise is crazy: You’re trying to throw a ball into a net while someone is trying to drown you. On the surface, it looks benign—a lot of bobbing heads and a few arms in the air—but the real action is happening under the water, where you can’t see it. Then they show the replay on the underwater camera and—holy cannoli, it’s a war zone down there, with all the shoving and gouging, kicking and grabbing and people pushing each other’s heads underwater. The women are even more vicious than the men because their swimsuits have more fabric, giving them convenient handles to drag each other down to their doom. I can’t get enough of this sport. It’s like roller derby with asphyxiation.

Ah, sweet mystery of fencing
I love watching fencing, but no matter how many times I see it, I do not understand it. Even when they super-slo-mo the replays, I can’t tell who’s stabbing whom. But I’ve decided that a fencing match is like a poem: Just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. I like the contrasting styles of foil, sabre and épée—some are thrusty, others are slashy, and that’s about as technical as I can get because, again, I do not understand this sport. And that’s fine. Everything happens in a split second, all aggression and forward momentum, all speed and snorting and shouting*. I especially love the fencers’ footwork, how steady and balanced they are, as if nothing could ever knock them over. It’s a welcome respite from gymnastics, where everybody seems about to fall down and crack their heads open.

The best worst day of your life
Speaking of gymnastics, when those fabulous American girls** won the team title and the Russian girls were crying their eyes out, I found myself wondering how many of them, on both teams, threw their guts up before the competition or felt like crap the whole day because they were so nervous. Watching the Olympics is like seeing hundreds of brides on their wedding day, and I don’t mean just the women—most of these athletes are more stressed out than they’ve ever been in their lives, with no sleep and bags under their eyes and wacked-out blood sugar. I guess that’s what separates the champions from everybody else: The best athletes know how to come out on a really bad day and look great in spite of it.

The other Olympians
Years ago, I was watching the winter Olympics late one night when I saw a figure skater who was way, way back in the pack—in 30th place or something—skating her long program. She was having a horrible night; she fell again and again, but she kept getting up and skating. By the time her routine was over, she looked exhausted and her legs were hatchmarked with thin, bleeding cuts from falling so many times on the ice. It was one of the saddest and most sobering things I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most real. Wow, I thought, figure skating is f***ing hard. I don’t remember her name, but I sure remember her, trying to do this almost impossible thing in front of millions of TV viewers and just having a hell of a time. At this year’s Olympics, there must be hundreds of athletes like her—not dazzling the crowd with their world records, but just scratching their way through these extremely difficult sports. I would like to see those athletes. We have a kajillion cable channels, so why can’t we see every athlete, in every sport, on TV? And NBC’s live online streaming thing doesn’t count; my Podunk-town cable provider isn’t on their list.

Patriotism, racism, or just business as usual?
I don’t have a scientific count here, but during NBC’s prime-time broadcasts, I haven’t seen a single “up close and personal” bio—or even a post-race poolside interview—with a nonwhite, non-U.S. athlete. A few Brits and Aussies, yes, but I’m continually amazed that the commentator sticks a microphone in the face of the American swimmer who came in fifth, when there’s a perfectly good Asian swimmer right there who just won a medal and is having the best day of her life, and probably speaks English. It wasn’t always this way; I remember lots of little bios in past Olympics featuring athletes from other countries, including many who didn’t end up winning bupkus. We got to see where they lived and trained, got to meet their families and dogs and hear about the obstacles they faced on their long journey to the Olympics. But this year, nada—it’s like athletes from other countries exist only as backdrops for Americans. Perhaps NBC is feeling the pinch, as we all are, and it’s too expensive to rustle up a translator or go do those overseas interviews. But I get the creeping feeling that NBC is holding the rest of the world at arm’s length for a reason. I see this particularly when NBC commentators talk about Chinese athletes: There’s a hint of disdain and fear in their voices, an unwillingness to get close enough to see them as people, as if they want us to think that China is cranking out so many cookie-cutter automatons, inhuman in their perfection. Is NBC is too lazy or cash-strapped or too—what, racist?—to get any closer than that? Or is it just a business strategy? After all, General Electric owns 49% of NBC, and as a leading defense contractor, GE does not have the purest intentions when it comes to promoting harmony between nations. The whole system feels wrong, tragically short sighted and clattering with conflicts of interest. We’ll see how the next week plays out—track and field is full of great foreign athletes—but I don’t hold out much hope for change. So I’ll probably head back to the eleventy-twelve stations where they show all those “other” sports, the ones where the rest of the world kicks ass…and wows me every morning.

* In contrast, archery and shooting are very Zen sports where commentators talk about relaxation and “letting it happen,” and the arrow or bullet’s flight is at the mercy of everything from the wind to the rotation of the Earth. All three—fencing, archery, and shooting—are beautiful, strange competitions that all simulate murder.

** I know we’re supposed to call it Women’s Gymnastics, but come on—only one of the Americans was even 18. These are little girls. Little girls who could break me like a toothpick.

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