Apart from an aberrant obsession with the NFL, sports as competition are not my thing. I don’t root for any teams, I don’t check any results, I don’t care who won, or who lost. Sports as culture, though, are a whole other bag. I’ve made it a point to attend at one game for every major US sport (okay, still haven’t made it to a NBA game, but soon), because it is what Americans do. Things like the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry fascinate me. I love sports movies, especially documentaries, to the point where what I know about any given sport is frequently deeply influenced by what movies I’ve seen about it. But following actual sports? No thanks.
By that standard, I should be absolutely smitten with the Olympics, the ultimate sports-as-culture event, where everyone suddenly develops a massive interest in athletic endeavors they normally couldn’t be paid to care about. The problem is, once the games get past audacious opening ceremonies, there’s sure a whole lot of competition. The nationalistic frenzy is kind of off putting, too. It’s just hard to get excited about the super-trained athletes of the US dominating some poor guys from an underdeveloped part of the world, and whenever I cheer for the other guy people cast weird looks and the occasional muttered threat my way. No one ever believes I’m from Lithuania.
That’s probably why I was pleased when my first, and only, dedicated chunk of Olympic viewing opened with … a short documentary on the 1992 Dream Team. The Dream Team is a subject I barely acknowledged when it happened, but it had me fully engaged during the half-hour NBC gave it here. I don’t know if previous nights’ coverage opened with a random Olympics-related sports doc, but it was nice for me. It wasn’t a terribly even handed or deep documentary, but as a fluff piece on the “greatest team ever assembled,” it did a fine job easing me into my Olympic evening.
Then it was time for some diving! Men’s ten-meter platform diving, to be specific, which we were informed is most competitive event in diving. NBC took a weird angle in covering it, though, since it ignored most of the field’s actual top competition. The America-centric coverage was to be expected, fine. And yes, last year’s surprise gold medalist, Australian Matthew Mitcham, is someone people will care about despite his middling performance (he also got one of those cheesy backstory videos that focused roughly equally on his coming out and success in Beijing). But why did we see so many dives from Britain’s Tom Daley? Because he’s the hometown hero? Because he’s photogenic? I’d have liked to see more from the top guys, both Chinese, who were basically flawless, than Daley, who squeaked in at 16th. Or any dives from the Germans that finished in fourth and fifth (they must have had some sweet dives, right?). Hey, at least we got to see the super-difficult dives from the Mexican contingent. They must have realized trying the hardest dives of the night was the only way they were going to make it onto American TV.
The analysis for the diving was weak, leaving me knowing exactly as much after the event as I did going in: don’t make a big splash, and more somersaults and/or turns equals harder difficulty. Beyond that, it was a mystery. It was never clear to me why one guy scored better or worse than the next, apart from those splashes, and it didn’t seem like the announcers really cared to try to explain it to me. The splash-o-meter was fun, but if there was any science behind it beyond a guy in the booth arbitrarily marking a line on his computer, I’d be shocked. A few words of explanation would have gone a long way here. Did they explain this on a previous night? And even if they did, I can’t be the only guy tuning into to diving for the first time, can I?
After the diving we got a bizarre interlude about Downton Abbey, degrees of British royalty, and heraldry. I’ve never seen an episode of Downton Abbey, but even if the piece was fascinating for fans it seemed really incongruous. The heraldry was mildly interesting, given how much time I’ve spent reading about heraldry in George R.R. Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it didn’t seem any less incongruous. But hey, a little host culture thrown in for fun! Did the Beijing Olympics give a similar slot to Chinese history, or was this just gratuitous Anglophilia?
The track portion of the evening opened with some more non-medal events, including women’s 4x400 relay and men’s 4x100 relay. The US did well in both, qualifying for the finals, which seemed to be the expected outcome. Less expected was the US men setting a new national record in winning their heat. Now they can shoot for a new new record to beat the Usain Bolt-anchored Jamaican team for the gold!
The night’s first medal events kicked off promptly at 9 p.m. MST (the easier for home viewers who don’t care if it isn’t for a medal) with the women’s 5,000 meter. That’s a race that takes about 15 minutes to run, and I can’t say I was particularly upset when NBC broke away a few minutes in to go to commercial, coming back a few minutes later to show the end. During the commercial, Visa caught me up on some of the Olympic storylines and victories so far, so thanks for that, Visa!
The announcers for the women’s 1,500 meter mentioned in passing that Abeba Aregawi, one of the top contenders, was basically being forced to run for Ethiopia, then just moved on. What? That has to be one of the most interesting stories of the night! How do you just drop that and go on to the next bit of trivia? That same race offered some real heartbreak, when American Morgan Uceny fell (she was brushed by none other than Aregawi), the second time she’d suffered that mishap in a big race, we were informed. The camera lingered on her after the race and it was genuinely hard to watch her sobbing over such a bad break.
The counterpoint to that American low was the world-record setting win by the American women in the 4x100 relay, a race they absolutely dominated. It was genuinely exciting to watch, and I have to admit, if I could get that feeling from sports more often, I’d watch a lot more sports. Other medal races included the women’s 4x400, which netted the US a silver and included another one of those tear-jerker backstory segments, this one on Bryshon Nellum, who came back from being shot in 2008 to run the first leg of a near-win in the relay. Pole vaulting was interspersed here and there and despite my fascination with the physics of that event (seriously, how the hell does that even work?), I can honestly say I didn’t mind how little of it they showed.
Apparently, BMX biking is an Olympic sport, because that’s what the night ended with. Aside from the “Huh, that’s in the Olympics?” factor, it was actually pretty entertaining. It moves fast, you can always tell who’s winning, and every once in a while you get a spectacular crash. What’s not to like? David Beckham is apparently a fan—probably because the women’s favorite, Shanaze Reade, is British—and they pointed out his attendance early on and made a point of turning the camera his away again later. And hey, there was one real-time update in the tape-delayed proceedings! During Reade’s backstory segment, NBC broke in to tell us Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate. Then Colombia won the women’s gold, Latvia took the men’s gold, and that was it for the actual events coverage.
That wasn’t it for the night, though! Instead, we got Tom Brokaw interviewing Roger Bannister, the British man who was the first to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was an interesting piece, and it would have slotted in nicely before the track and field coverage, say, in place of the weird Downton Abbey aside. After that, Jimmy Fallon wrote some Olympic-themed apology notes and keyboard Bob Costas played us off. It seemed like a gratuitous ending to the night, but considering how many random tangents and heavy-handed back story segments peppered the night’s coverage, a gratuitous ending seemed just about right.
- Considering how high-tech the shiny, one-piece track uniforms look with all their fancy futuristic fonts and patterns, it seemed really weird that they still attach paper numbers to them with safety pins.
- Could have done without the Tebowesque comments from diver David Boudia about how it was God’s will that he made the cut to finals. Apparently, God loves drama because Bodia just squeezed in at 18th. That would also explain Tebow.
- Great Britain was disqualified from the 4x100 over a stupid mistake—one runner started off too early and they didn’t get the hand-off done in time. That had to have been heartbreaking.
- The sci-fi geek in me loved Oscar Pistorius running on bionic legs. Too cool.
- A few nice crashes livened the BMX events up. Most looked harmless, but a brutal faceplant that left American Elise Post looking concussed was hard to watch.