Beijing 2008: Logging on and tuning out

Some have presumed that the reason why the Olympics have lost some of its luster isn’t because it’s a professional sporting event as opposed to one showcasing the top amateur athletes. After all, even in the old days there was hardly such a thing as a true “amateur athlete.”

During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the East German teams were loaded with pros. Behind the Iron Curtain elaborate sports schools complete with special training and special “vitamins” weren’t just part of the sporting culture, they were accepted training practices.

Meanwhile the specter of the Soviet monster was the perfect foil for the U.S. and international athletics. It was very difficult not to look at that menacing and simplistic “CCCP” on the front of a jersey and not be scared shitless. Everyone knew what it meant, which was, “get ready – this might hurt.”

Coming from the United States it’s difficult to understand if that splashy and decorative, “USA” had the same affect. Oh sure, anyone can admit that the “U-S-A!” chant was obnoxious and annoying, but was it fearsome? Did strike worry into the opposition?

Who knows? Americans were always taught that “CCCP” was pure evil, while the Soviets saw the amateurs from America as weak.

It’s kind of funny – in an ironic way – that t-shirts or trinkets with “CCCP” on them are now viewed as “kitsch” or vintage throwbacks to the old days.

Sigh.

But the dissolution of the classic Cold War didn’t ruin the Olympics, either. Neither did the inclusion of non-traditional and fringe sports to the games like beach volleyball or BMX, events that took center stage in past television broadcasts. Instead it was NBC’s decision to focus less on the actual competition and more on the human-interest dramas. Apparently, NBC felt that sports – even Olympic competition – was not enough.

Not only that, NBC decided that the sports they did telecast would not be in real time. Worse, they chopped up the recordings of the events, edited out the nuance and details, and presented them as it would an episode of “Friends.”

For someone who remembered watching Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner in Montreal in ’76, the Miracle on Ice in ’80 and the avalanche of American victories during the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984, the made-for-TV vignettes forced down viewers’ throats was insulting.

Worse, it was a turnoff. Literally.

But for the Olympics starting today in Beijing, NBC won’t have the built-in excuse of time zones inconducive to American-viewing audiences. For the 2000 games in Sydney and the 2004 games in Athens, it was rare for fans in the U.S. to see a live event. Worse, Michael Johnson’s epic run in the 200-meters in Atlanta wasn’t even shown live.

But for the Beijing Olympics NBC can go live all the time. One reason is that the time difference is convenient. When it’s 7 p.m. in Beijing, it is 7 a.m. in Philadelphia. Sure, people have to go to work in the morning, but a die-hard sports fan can easily get up to watch the competition.

Better yet, more so than any other time in history technology will play an instrumental role. The proliferation of the Internet makes it impossible and even stupid to stage made-for-TV events. Apparently NBC knows this because it will stream events live on its web site. Plus, along with the growth of Internet, cable television has grown since the last Olympics. As a result, NBC will show 23 ½ hours of Olympic coverage a day on its various networks ranging from MSNBC to CNBC to Universal HD to Panavision.

Plus, NBC has to know that its reputation and culpability are on the line if they don’t give American viewers an honest, un-filtered presentation. A bad showing could push sports fans to the Internet in droves. Everything else will be on NBCOlympics.com – not that new high def TV you just bought.

Who could have predicted Twitter in 2004?

Nevertheless, by the time NBC got around to broadcasting the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, all of the debris, smoke from the fireworks and debris had been swept away, the people had all gone home and the Olympic Stadium, called the Bird’s Nest, was being prepared to host its first events.

Aside: And no, when NBC showed President Bush talking to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they were not talking about the drum number as Bob Costas suggested. It was probably something more like Putin’s decision to invade former Soviet republic, Georgia, on Friday.

Nice try, Bob.

But according to The New York Times, seven events will give medals on Saturday, but NBC will only broadcast two of them live. This begs the question:

How can an American broadcasting corporation be almost as restrictive as the Chinese government?

Maybe it’s time to get a satellite dish in order to get the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s unbiased, live and unpretentious coverage?

OK, nobody really gives a crap about Bob Costas or NBC. (In best Jim McKay voice) We, as sports fans, want the unparalleled human drama that is only captured in the Olympics. Once every four years athletes have a chance to capture immortality. Imagine having to wait that long for the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Moreover, just rooting for your home country isn’t enough. In a global society where more American products are made in China than around the corner, we root for the hometown heroes.

They say all politics is local. So too are international athletics.

Certainly those of us who write about sports in Philadelphia have plenty of topics. Here are the local folks to keep an eye on:

Kobe Bryant – Yeah most people have heard of the Lower Merion High grad who also is the diva of the NBA. After flopping with his Lakers in the NBA Finals against the Celtics, Bryant and LeBron James are in charge of returning the gold medal to the U.S. in basketball. Most pundits have picked Team Nike USA to win it in Beijing, but if they don’t expect plenty of criticism for the very precious Kobe.

Sarunas JasikeviciusThe Lithuanian basketball star made his fame when he torched the U.S. during the 2004 Athens Olympics. This time around he was the flag bearer for his home country. But aside from playing collegiately at the University of Maryland, Sarunas played his high school hoops for Solanco High in Lancaster County. Back then he was secondary offensive option for a prep team that featured short-lived Temple star, Johnny Miller.

Needless to say, it looks as if Sarunas has done OK for himself.

Jen Rhines ­- Coached by her husband and fellow Villanova All-American Terrence Mahon, Rhines has defied the distance runner evolution. After competing in the marathon in Athens in 2004 and the 10,000 in Sydney in 2000, she is running in the 5,000-meters in Beijing. Chances are Rhines will struggle to make the finals in a deep event, but berths on Olympic teams in three different events is pretty amazing.

Brian Sell The true cult hero in the running world. Though Sell didn’t even break 10-minutes for two-miles in high school, ran collegiately for Division III Messiah College near Harrisburg before transferring to little know D-I St. Francis in Loretto, Pa., he kept on running. As a result he improved year after year as the marquee runner for the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks project.

And as Sell, from Woodbury, Pa., continued to improve by routinely ticking off upwards to 160-mile weeks, he got married to a girl from Lancaster County, had a daughter, bought a house, put off dental school and continued to work at Home Depot.

How many Olympians do that?

Sell isn’t expected to crack the podium in the marathon in Beijing. In fact, he’s not expected to be the top American finisher in the event either. Ryan Hall is America’s hope for gold. But Sell is looking for a top 10 finish after logging those 160-mile weeks in nasty conditions in anticipation for the heat and humidity of August in China.

“I’m hoping for the worst conditions possible,” Sell told Runner’s World. “It could be a big equalizer.”

Amanda Beard – She’s not local, but why not?

Michael Phelps – The new Golden Boy is kind of local. He’s from North Baltimore, which is closer to a lot of places considered part of the Philadelphia viewing area than Philly.

Other subjects of interest:

  • China – The Olympics are the biggest thing that happened to this mysterious country since Richard Nixon visited. It also sounds as if it’s just as important as all of the U.S. companies moving its manufacturing centers there.
  • Pollution/environmental issues – A few athletes, like Haile Gebreselasie, have backed out of the games because of health concerns. Reports are the Chinese government is pulling out all the stops to lower the smog and pollution rate, but how much is sure to be an issue.
  • Politics – Naïve types like to say that the Olympics are not about politics, but athletics. Yeah, right. If that was the case there would be no parade of nations – just the top athletes regardless of their nationality. Nevertheless, be prepared to hear about Darfur, Tibet and various other human rights issues… it’s about time.
  • Censorship – Marcus Hayes from the Daily News told me in an e-mail that he couldn’t access his web site from the media center in Beijing. Americans and journalists traveling to China for the games expect restrictions on civil liberties, but how much they stand for will be an interesting sub plot.
  • Doping – yeah.
  • Corporatization – Coke, Nike, General Electric, NBC, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, and Visa. Try this out: on the U.S. basketball team, 11 players are sponsored by Nike, one is with adidas. Nike is also the official sponsor of Team USA… and probably the entire games. That is if Coke lets them.

So now the choice is ours. Do we log on and tune out or just allow the pretty high-def hues on tape delay from NBC wash over us?

2 thoughts on “Beijing 2008: Logging on and tuning out

  1. Your point about the dopes who wear shirts with the hammer and sickle on them is definitely well-received on this end. How is that deemed “acceptable” and “vintage”, but wearing a shirt with a shirt with a nazi swastika would probably get one’s butt kicked? Both the Soviets and the Nazis killed a lot of people. I don’t get it at all.

    As for the Olympics, I got Eagles pre-season and Phillies offensive futility to keep me occupied.

  2. Less than nobody cares about swimming, much less a sub-category of the same, but…Havertown’s hope, Brendan Hansen, whose only chance for gold is going to be in the Men’s 100 meter breaststroke.

    The man who’s set a zillion American and world records is in need of redemption after failing to win individual gold in Athens (helped along by accusations of cheating by Japanese rival Kosuke Kitajima). Since he failed to make it in the 200m, and the fact there’s been a little cult of Kitajima going on in Japan, it’s a compelling storyline if he wins this time. This may be his last chance. He’s 27 now and will be 31 by the time of the London games.

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