Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Olympics and the American Character

No. 48 in a Series
Drawing Excessively Broad Conclusions From Current Events

"Can you see them? Can you see them? Little girls -- dancing for gold."
John Tesh, 1996 Summer Games

As I do every four years, I have dutifully been following the Olympics. I'm always vaguely aware that there is something strange about failing to give a flip about gymnastics for 3.999 years and then suddenly having an obsession with "our" inability to "stick the landing." It probably stems from the Cold War, in which the Olympics were a regularly-scheduled battlefield between the forces of Pure, Clean American Fun and the Tortured, Deprived Commies. (Not to be sarcastic -- the stories of Chinese athletes are staggering in their sadness.) Watching the Olympics was a patriotic duty during the Cold War. I vividly remember the 1980 goalie with the American flag wrapped around him (recently bastardized for a bad movie), I remember America's unironic pride at finally winning a passel of gymnastics medals when the Soviets didn't show up in 1984, I remember America's shock at the drop-off in the medal count at Seoul, when the big kids started competing again.

Now America has won the Cold War, and the Olympics resemble nothing so much as an average afternoon of "Wide World of Sports." It reminds us that there are an awful lot of talented people in the world, and an awful lot of countries.

Having watched the Olympic coverage this year, I am ready to make three broad, sweeping statements about America.

1. America has no problem pretending that the world revolves around us.

Once again, NBC has decided to go with its "plausibly live" coverage of the Olympics, which means that footage of competitions that finished hours ago are presented as if "live," with breathless commentary filled with questions like "can the Americans salvage a medal after that fall?" Of course they can, Elfi -- I heard it on the news on my way home from work, as did all the other people of the world.

The most egregious version of this was the opening ceremonies, which NBC broadcast with several segments missing because of commercial breaks. Think about that for a second. Normally, NBC can fudge the "plausibly live" coverage by putting the commericals in between rotations, and by omitting the competitors that are not in medal contention. You subconsciously assume that the time spent showing the swimming finals corresponds to the time that, say, France was coming in a distant eighth in the gymnastics finals. You are never forced to realize that the commercials never overlap the competitive action. If you don't think about it, it feels like NBC simply got a "TV time out" in the Olympics, like they get in football games.

But the opening ceremonies were unequivocally one uninterrupted performance. So to make the broadcast seem "live," they had to come back from commercial and briefly "recap" what had happened during the break. ("The two people dancing in the water represent the hope of the human race and the desire to push toward the future in Greece. This frolicking porpoise was brought to you by the Greater Greece Chamber of Commerce.") But they were merely broadcasting videotape, recorded hours earlier. They could have stopped the tape during the commercials, without having to stop and describe what had happened. But they would have had to honestly say something like "This was the scene several hours ago in Greece."

The fact is that the Olympics are not on a convenient American time schedule this year, because they are being held in another country. Other countries have different time zones. They have different views of the world. They do not stop and wait for America to catch up. And America is never, ever forced to confront that fact.

Compare and contrast to the Iraq war, which is covered live on Al-Jazeera yet never, ever shown in detail on American television. We've got the "plausibly live" coverage of our own war, with the media complicit in the decision to present a fake, America-centric view of the war that is more palatable for American consumption.

2. Americans Don't Get It Right

While I'm making overbroad generalizations, let me comment on the American national character as seen in the gymnastics competition.

Romanian theory of gymnastics: Make it look smooth and effortless, even elegant. There are to be no errors, bobbles, or mistakes, because those are point deductions. There is no point in doing the harder maneuvers if you can't do the easier maneuvers without bobbling. That is absurd -- playing above your game. The goal is perfection.

American theory of gymnastics: Make it look hard. Grunt and groan as you attempt a quadruple-reverse-upsidedown-flip that is just outside your capacity to do reliably, and bobble when you land, barely successful at your trick. But you didn't fall! Don't worry about perfection, because only assholes expect perfection. Max out your effort and don't worry if it was clean. Show your disappointment at winning a 9.5 for a routine in which you routinely lost your balance.

Americans can't stand the idea that the standard is getting it right, not getting it showy. Americans like to see the glass "half-full." They also like pundits yammering on about how it is anti-American to mention the empty part of the glass. That's why it was so interesting that every time the American fans express their strong disapproval of the scoring, Tim Daggett or Elfi Schlegel have to come on and explain that the Americans had received a fair score.

America invaded a foreign country, and justified this invasion with the only rhetoric that could justify such a flagrant violation of international law -- preemptive strike against an immediate threat. And we did a damn fine job of doing it with a high degree of difficulty. Minimal soldiers! Lightning strikes! Our president flew out to an aircraft carrier!

When it turned out that Hussein was merely a sonofabitch among other sonsabitches, and that it was going to be really hard to rebuild the country we had just invaded, we got a 9.5. Good for international competition, but not great. We should be happy with that 9.5. We can still recover. It's not a "quagmire," after all, because we didn't fall off the beam.

But some feverishly criticize those that would point out that a 9.5 isn't a 10. They insist that "international" standards are inherently unfair, or worse, are meaningless. America defines its actions as a 10, and everyone else is just a cheese-eating surrender monkey.

3. Some Olympic Sports Suck

Rhythmic gymnastics? Trampoline gymnastics? Speed walking?

I don't really have anything to say about America here. I just think that it's got to be an insult to the winners in the "real" sports. Imagine some guy in the Olympic village, after a hard-earned bronze for the 100 meter dash, catching attitude from some other dude sporting a silver in the trampoline.

Come to think about it, that' s pretty American too.

 9:32 AM

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