I tried. I swear—I really, really tried. For those of you who have not been obsessively following my posts (hard to believe, but I know there are some of you), I wrote an entry a while back about how I was boycotting watching the Olympics this year because the NBC coverage is always an orgy of American excess, designed to show USA superiority at all costs, and an epic showcase of bad sportsmanship on the global stage. Subsequently, Bob Costas himself, of all people, called me to differ, and we had a spirited debate that ended with me promising to reconsider my position, and pledging to watch what he assured me would be balanced, internationally flavored telecasts.
So much for that.
I was in trouble from the start. I skipped the Opening Ceremonies, mainly because they strike me as the Miss Universe Pageant without the interesting native costumes (leave it to Ralph Lauren to make the American delegation look … French), and because I am sick to death of that walking mannequin Paul McCartney. (Paul, you’re 70. Knock if off with the Bruce Jenner botoxing.) But the next day, with NBC broadcasting on 50 channels, I had the chance to watch something I’d never normally see, perhaps skeet-shooting or yachting. I found a cable listing for archery on the NBC Sports Channel, flicked to it, and got … beach volleyball. The only thing I didn’t know then was that I would be getting beach volleyball 24/7 for the following week.
And that’s for two simple reasons: It allows NBC to show scantily clad women (and some beefcake thrown in for good measure). But more important, the Americans always win. And being in America, we only want to see the sports where we are likely to win. Which is why NBC devoted an entire channel to basketball—so we could witness LeBron and the rest of the spoiled NBA millionaires beating the shit out of some country no one’s ever heard of. Did you happen to catch that thrilling 110-63 U.S. victory over Tunisia? How about that 156-93 nail-biter over Nigeria? Well done, boys. Whew!
As for beach volleyball, a simple question: Are there two more obnoxious Olympians at these Games than Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings? (The answer, sadly, is yes: See Lochte, Ryan.) The whoofing, the finger-pointing, all for a sport played in the back of dive bars. Who knew two lithe women could so effectively channel frat-house hooliganism? Since beach volleyball was introduced at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the men’s team has won gold every time but one; the women’s team has won the last two. This year’s women’s final will be “all-American.” Wonder why we’re seeing so much of it on TV?
I was just about to declare it couldn’t get any worse when it did: Ryan Seacrest and his Cheshire-cat grin showed up to relay the vital information that the most tweeted picture from the Opening Ceremonies was of the Queen. Good God.
It all went downhill from there: The orgy of Michael Phelps worship, even when he didn’t win, replete with never-ending shots of mom Debbie, the Wilma McNabb of the Olympics (you know there is a Chunky Soup commercial coming); the excruciating interviews by the dueling blonde Andreas (Kremer and Joyce), as they slobbered over every American no matter where they placed; the apologia for the men’s gymnastics team as it collapsed in a heap of errors, with nary a mention of their cockiness and arrogance going in; the silence when Ryan Lochte choked on the last leg of the men’s 4-by-100-meter freestyle, giving the gold to the avenging, feisty French. (Amazingly, the French gold medal ceremony was televised—at midnight.)
To be sure, Phelps is an amazing athlete, and his Olympic record should be duly celebrated. Ditto for Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt, who both turned in incredible performances, as did Gabby Douglas. My view is not that we shouldn’t celebrate the American spirit and its triumphs at the Games. My view is that we shouldn’t do it at the expense of everyone—and everything—else. One of the best stories was the shocking upset victory by 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte, who won tiny Lithuania’s only gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. Did you enjoy the interview with her? Cry at her medal ceremony? Not likely. Neither were broadcast. If only she’d had the sense to defect at age 10.
There has been coverage of international athletes. But at least in prime time it’s been skewed heavily to show them making mistakes, especially in gymnastics. There was an amazing—I mean, truly amazing—lengthy profile by Mary Carillo on the story of Olga Korbut, the Soviet gymnast who basically brought the sport into international popularity during her stunning Olympic run in 1972. Full of tremendous archival footage, a probing interview with Olga today, and trenchant analysis of what it all meant, the report was a whooshing breath of fresh air, a reminder of how special those old “Up Close and Personal” segments the legendary Roone Arledge invented for ABC were. But chances are you didn’t see the Olga Korbut segment: It was buried on NBC’s Sunday morning telecast.
Likewise, you no doubt didn’t see the tragic story of Shin A-lam of South Korea, who was literally one second away from winning her women’s fencing epee semifinal match. All she had to do was avoid being touched by her competitor, Germany’s Britta Heidemann, to advance to the gold-medal match. Instead, the referee re-started the match with the second left, and the timekeeper forgot to start the clock. So Lam was touched—and lost. She crumpled to the stage, devastated, as the Koreans appealed. It turned out the timekeeper was a 15-year-old British volunteer. No matter. Shin A-lam sat on the stage for a half hour, crying, but the appeal was denied.
It was one of the most dramatic stories of the Games. And barely mentioned in NBC’s prime-time coverage.
One of the biggest gripes I made in my original argument was that we never get to see the medal ceremonies unless the Americans win. In our subsequent chat, Costas swore this wasn’t true. But it is. I have now watched NBC’s prime-time coverage for more than a week, and with the rare exception—Usain Bolt’s ceremony, for example (who knew Jamaica had such a stately national anthem?)—it’s been the stars and stripes forever (and ever). I did catch the moving medal ceremony for the Dominican Republic’s Felix Sanchez on Monday night (at 11:56 p.m., naturally), for his victory in the 400-meter hurdles. If you haven’t seen it, you should. He burst into tears even before his flag began ascending the flagpole, and his raw, patriotic emotion was almost too much to bear. It was, in a word, beautiful.
NBC has thrown me something of a bone, however: You can now see almost 100 medal ceremonies online at nbcolympics.com. What you’ll learn: The Russian national anthem is gorgeous and stirring; Japan’s is simply sad. The sight of Jessica Ennis of Great Britain, her eyes welled with tears, listening to her fellow countrymen sing “God Save the Queen” after winning the heptathlon, brings a lump to the throat. Yesterday morning I watched Omid Noroozi of Iran receive his medal for 60 kg Greco-Roman wrestling, and what struck me was how gracious he was: singing quietly with his anthem, and taking pains to shake hands with his competitors and bring them onto his platform with him for pictures. Diplomacy may not live in international politics, but it’s somehow comforting to feel it still exists in international sport. And if you really want to see how you accept a medal, check out the video of the Italian women’s fencing team, holding hands and singing a rousing rendition of Mameli’s Hymn. I played the video for my friend Christy; she promptly burst into tears.
But maybe that’s the problem. Or, more specifically, my problem. The raw truth is that people don’t want to see the medal ceremony of the guy from New Zealand. I got into a discussion about all this with Joe, the teddy bear of a man who drives my apartment shuttle every morning, and while he agreed that perhaps the NBC coverage was a bit off balance, he counter-argued that the Olympics were our chance to show the world American glory and, in his words, “dominance”—to reinforce the notion that we are still the superpower of the globe, the force to be reckoned with.
It would appear the rest of the country agrees with him: Ratings for the Games are up, and up a lot, an affirmation that when it comes to watching the Olympics, Americans want to watch Americans, and more specifically they want to watch Americans beating the feathers out of everybody else. NBC is, after all, a business (one owned by a Philadelphia company), and its responsibility is to its shareholders. So as much as I would love to lay all of this at the feet of Bob Costas, in good conscience I can’t. Instead, I can only lament all of the chest-thumping. And comfort myself with repeated playings of those marvelous, singing fencing girls from Italy.