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.

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