Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Elizabeth Hurley (Alternately, the nature of God)

I overheard two women talking in the parking lot as I was waiting for my son to take his typical very slow walk to the front doors of the preschool. It’s not that he doesn’t like preschool. In fact, he really likes it. He’s just not in a hurry to get there (or anywhere, for that matter.)

The Devil (Artist's interpretation)
Anyway, I don’t know exactly what the women were discussing, but at one point the older woman said something to the effect of “That’s why you have to pray for EXACTLY what you want. Otherwise, you won’t get it.” The implication being that God will give you what you ask for, so you’d better be ultra-specific lest God decides to be like the monkey’s paw that gives three wishes but don’t exactly work out like the person making the wish had planned. Or, as an excuse to run a picture of Elizabeth Hurley in a post about the nature of God, it’s like the movie Bedazzled where she plays the Devil and grants wishes not exactly as planned.

Now, I am not what you would call a classically trained theologian. Other than a few philosophy courses in college that touched on the idea of God at times, I can’t say I have any formal education on what the nature of God is. But if God is the all-loving, all powerful God that the church claims he* is, then shouldn’t a prayer with the vaguest of ideas about what you’re asking God for be enough? Why the need to be so precise that the best legal scholars of the day would have trouble finding alternative outcomes for the prayer?

*The God I know loves me enough to support proper grammar and not to capitalize pronouns in the middle of a sentence.

I guess when I was 16 and wanted a car, I should have mentioned to God that I kind of wanted it when I was, in fact, 16. Now I know.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Olympic Thoughts

I  like the Olympic idea. The thought of people putting aside whatever geopolitical* differences they have and the best athlete in one country facing off against the best athlete of another country in their chosen sport to see who is the best. It’s a fantastic idea. If it weren’t for the whole “inventing democracy” thing, the Olympics would be the Greeks greatest contribution to society.

*Geopolitical may be the biggest word I’ve ever used in a blog entry. Please don’t expect more.

And while I’ve enjoyed watching the “Games of the 30th Olympiad,” I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed the Olympics experience, and most of this dissatisfaction can be laid at the feet of  NBC. This isn’t about the peacock network’s decision to make it next to impossible for me to watch the events I want to watch live, though that does suck.

Instead, my gripes come not from when NBC is showing events, but how and what they’re showing. For the purposes here, we’ll focus on the NBC broadcasts, you know, the one where they pretend the events didn’t take place six hours before they show them to you. Ok, so maybe my complaints do involve a bit of bitterness for not being able to see the events live like literally EVERY OTHER COUNTRY.

You may not be aware, but there are more than 200 countries participating in this year’s Olympics, from China and its billion people to Tuvalu, which I learned in the opening ceremonies is not the line in Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come on Eileen.” Then again, if you’re reading this, it’s entirely likely that you’re well aware of the massive number of countries who sent athletes to the games. This makes you more aware of the world around you than the executives at NBC, who seem to have the belief that there is the United States of America who are in every event and then countries that just sent athletes to play against the USA.

I get it. NBC is an American company broadcasting almost exclusively to an American audience. And I get that NBC paid a princely sum of money for the exclusive rights to broadcast the games and need to do what they can to recoup their investment. The best way to do that is to play into the jingoistic** nature of the Olympics and show events that Americans win. Who doesn’t want to watch their home country win medal after medal?

Me, that’s who.

**Ok, two big words. Sorry.

Not that I don’t want the American athletes to perform well. I hope they all set personal bests in every event they compete in. But it’s the freaking Olympics. Once every four years (two if you count the winter games, and judging by the ratings, many of you don’t), the world comes together. Athletes from North Korea compete next to athletes from the United States. Athletes from Israel line up against competitors from Iran. And you just know the Queen of England is looking out over all the different country’s athletes and thinking to herself “We used to rule over all the countries. 

What happened to us?”

Maybe it is just me. I’m sure other countries show the sports their citizens care about. Hungary probably shows a lot of water polo, Great Britain probably shows a lot of their athletes and no one really watches the fencing. But I bet those countries have the opportunity to watch all the sports they want live.

Are we having fun yet?
But rather than use this opportunity to showcase the global nature of the games and how, for two weeks at least, people can put aside  whatever disagreements they have and just have fun*** competing, NBC gives us pre-packaged syrupy stories. Comedian Andy Borowitz joked that several athletes were expelled from the games for failing to have a compelling back story of overcoming triumph. If NBC had control of the Olympic team selection process, this probably wouldn’t be a joke.

***Mckayla Maroney is exempted from this.

I’m a sports fan and that’s my problem. NBC doesn’t view the games as a sporting event. Instead, its goal is to make the Olympics a television event featuring sports. And in their defense, the ratings are showing their view to have merit as more than 30 million people nightly tune in. Nothing against Lolo Jones or Ryan Lotche, but I don’t really care about your story. I want to see you compete at the highest level and test your skills against the best from around the globe. I want to see sports.

One night last week NBC’s primetime coverage started at 8 p.m. Forty-five minutes in to the broadcast, we’d seen five minutes of actual competition. But we did get to see a 25-minute retrospective on the gold medal winning gymnasts from 1996, so there’s that. Hundreds of athletes from every corner of the earth competed that day in countless events and with all that footage at their disposal, NBC felt it best to show us something from 16 years ago. If there’s any greater sign that NBC doesn’t care about the sports aspect as much as the television aspect, that’s it.

What bothers me is there is no greater television drama than sports. Not the fake drama of a Lochte-Michael Phelps feud, but the genuine drama of the two men racing in the pool to see who is better. That’s drama. That’s what I want to see. But NBC, sadly, has different plans.

So here’s my humble suggestion. Show everything live and on tape delay in prime time. Show the events when the happen, but show the feature stories about the guy who was born to an upper-middle class family who was once turned down for a date from the fourth-runner up for homecoming queen who used that rejection to motivate himself to become the best racewalker in Canadian history. I’ll watch both live and on delay. We all will. It’s the Olympics. It’s when we all come together for the most human of all activities, complaining about television coverage.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympic Inspiration

If you're going to pick a sports figure to be a hero,
make it Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger.

I used to think my dreams of being an Olympic athlete were over.  Other than my lack of world class skill or speed in a specific discipline as well as the needed time to devote to acquiring the skill or speed that would land me on the Olympic team, I have everything it takes to be an Olympian. But that was before I saw Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger.

First, some quick facts about Niger. It's a landlocked country in western Africa that ranks 186th out of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. I don't know what that means, exactly, but I know it's not good. They have one Olympic medal in the country's history. (Any guesses?) It was a bronze in boxing in 1972 (good guess.)

Niger has competed in 10 Olympic games beginning in 1964. However, I couldn't tell you what they wore during the opening ceremonies, who carried their flag in the parade of nations or if NBC even bothered to show them when they walked in. In fact, before last week, the most I knew about Niger is that my friend who teaches social studies in middle school is always extremely careful in who he calls on to read in class when Niger is involved.

Now this may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, but Niger doesn't exactly have a glorious rowing history. That is to say, they have no rowing history. The country is roughly 80 percent desert and there aren't a lot of large bodies of water available to practice rowing. 

This is where Issaka comes in. Issaka is a former swimmer turned rower. And by "turned rower," I mean first set foot in a boat last November. He immediately overturned it. 

But Issaka didn't let a little thing like having to train in a wooden fishing boat because there wasn't a scull (competition boat) in his country deter him from becoming an Olympian. Granted an Olympic spot under a program from the International Olympic Committee that ensure each country can be represented, he set his mind to rowing in the Olympics. 

I happened to be watching when his heat came on and I figured I could devote a few minutes to a sport I won't care about for another four years. After all, if I can't get in to rowing in the Olympics, when can I? 

The gun fired and all the other competitors took off like they'd been training for more than three months. Issaka, meanwhile, took off like a man who first set foot in a scull a week before the race, because that's exactly what he was. He would later say he was just happy he didn't tip the boat over while waiting for the race to start. 

I was captivated by this African man who started slow and got progressively slower and slower. But he rowed.

And rowed.

And rowed.

Cutting his way through Dorney Lake in Great Britain Issaka was well out of the screen after 30 seconds. But he kept rowing.

And rowing.

And rowing.

The leaders all finished the race and Issaka kept rowing. For more than two minutes after everyone else had completed the race, Issaka kept rowing. And as he was, the crowd showered him with cheers and applause for his efforts.

He had no dreams of winning a medal, or even winning a heat. But he pressed on, serving as an inspiration for millions around the globe who believe they, too, given the chance just want to compete for their country. 

Issaka has already said he’s focused on improving his time for the 2016 games in Rio. And Niger has acquired four sculls and some oars to allow for more than a week of training.

Four years ago, I’d likely have spent this entire post making fun of Issaka, ridiculing him for attempting as ridiculous as trying to compete in the Olympics in a sport you just took up three months ago. 

Today, I’m an admirier and a fan of Issaka. He, more than anyone else I’ve seen at this year’s games, have reminded me that winning is defined in many ways. Issaka may not have won a medal, or a heat or even finished before any other competitor. But just by starting, he won.