Hollow Rings 

Save the Olympics; turn off the sound

Save the Olympics; turn off the sound

Last week, the world came to Atlanta.”

“The most gifted and dedicated athletes from around the globe answered a call to glory.”

“They followed the light of an eternal flame, carrying on their shoulders the hopes of nations.”

“For them, the dreams of a lifetime come down to a few short days.”

Much more of this, and you’ll just about want to hurl. And I’m not talking about the javelin.

There’s something about the Olympics that brings out all the hyperbole, all the hackneyed, burbling, “16 days to destiny” phrases, all of the soapy sentiments. All of which might sound a little more authentic were they not being served up by corporate advertisers and advertising-dependent media corporations—both of which, cynicism suggests, are more interested in pushing the goods than promoting goodwill.

We have to wade through all of this with every Olympiad, of course. But this quadrennium, with the games here on our shores, the hoo-roar has increased exponentially. It is inescapable. You can run like Michael Johnson, but you cannot hide.

Even more than Atlantans attempting to negotiate their city’s two-week gridlock, we ticketless schmucks watching the Games on TV have to wade through hot air and congestion to get to the Games. It’s almost enough to deter you from making the trip.

It’s not that the destination isn’t worthwhile. It’s just that you can endure only so many staged Kodak moments along the way. The Olympics are a cherished ideal. At their essence, as the hype loftily promises, the Games tap into a spirit of camaraderie amid competition, where national feeling does not preclude international friendship.

On TV, anyhow, the Games are like a perfectly prepared steak that someone has drowned in a glob of ketchup. They’re like the wild Ocoee River—the venue for the whitewater canoeing and kayaking events—now carefully controlled and “enhanced” by faux rocks and narrowed channels.

The spirit of friendly competition is down there somewhere. It’s just hard to find its essence sometimes—especially when such a huge chunk of the TV coverage is given over either to commercials or slick, prepackaged profiles that can make even the most compelling human-interest stories sound contrived and overdramatized.

What we’re seeing in abundance are events with lots of movement (volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, track and field), events with hard contact (boxing, wrestling), or events in which Americans are favored to do well (diving, tennis). Then, of course, we’ll witness every game as the Dream Team III runs, dunks, and yawns over everyone that stands between it and another gold medal.

What you’ll see little, if any, of are those events in which the USA hasn’t a prayer or events that the network deems as untelegenic. Thus, NBC broadcasts beach volleyball—which, besides skill and speed, offers the added attractions of tanned bodies and Speedos—but not team handball, in which we’ve never medaled. Or field hockey, in which we’d never even won an Olympic match until Monday. There’ll be no badminton, no yachting, no table tennis, and no modern pentathlon (whatever that is).

And even more than some of these offbeat sports, the true invisibles are the athletes from “offbeat” countries. We’ll probably never know, for example, what happened to that Mongolian guy who paraded into the opening ceremony in a native cape and jockstrap. Or what became of the little contingent from St. Kitts, a country that had never sent a team to the Olympics before.

For American audiences, of course, it’s only natural to emphasize American athletes and American successes. But narrowing our focus in this way also distorts our perspective and undercuts the internationalist spirit that the sponsors piously invoke.

We almost never see the very people who most embody the Olympic ideal: the athletes who came all this way, knowing they had little chance of winning, merely to compete on behalf of their countries. Yet it is often these athletes—like Eddie the Eagle, Britain’s nearsighted skijumper/adventurist, and Jamaica’s unlikely bobsled team—whose pluck captivates our imaginations.

Only if you manage to attend the Games in person—especially one of the preliminary rounds, with the Botswanans, Bolivians, Bosnians, Bahrainis, and the other not-ready-for-prime-time contestants—can you get an unfiltered sense of the Olympic spirit.

Failing that, however, we’d like to propose a few suggestions to help make the make the most of your Olympic TV-viewing experience.

1. Whenever NBC’s reportage becomes a little too precious, try to imagine Marge Schott as your host in Atlanta, instead of the glib and perky Bob Costas. “Honey (puff), what’s the deal with those Chinese gal swimmers? Jeez, they look more like men out there.”

“Belarus? Is that a country?”

“Remember Berlin in 1936? That Hitler really knew how to throw an Olympics.”

2. During breaks from the gymnastics coverage, make up sentences that sound like John Tesh, whose heavily scored, bordering-on-camp profiles of athletes sound like five-minute United Way commercials: “And then the plucky young Americans, undaunted by the world’s elite, rose to action.” (Add French horns.) By comparison, Tesh makes ABC’s old, barely digestable “Up Close and Personals” seem like tough, kick-’em-in-the-shins journalism.

3. Taking your cue from the collegiate game of Hi-Bob—in which participants tune in to Nick at Nite and are required to down a cold one every time a character on the original Bob Newhart Show says, “Hi, Bob”—you can keep everyone entertained at your own Olympics-watching party. Whenever an announcer uses the word “inspiring” or “heartwarming,” for example, the whole gang must quaff a beverage. You’ll be amazed how quickly people catch a buzz.

4. Chart every TV commercial (not counting network promos) that contrives to link the sponsor’s product or service to the spirit of the Games. Then award your own gold, silver, and bronze to the most vapid or pretentious ads.

5. Here in Nashville, you won’t be able to buy and trade the collectors’ pins that Olympics-goers use like currency, but you can share the spirit in your own way. Put together an assortment of as many official Olympic products as you can find (the official snack food of the Games, official photographic film, official beer, official sandwich bags), and create a special gift package for a friend or relative. It’s a present nobody will forget.

6. Then again, you can use the Games to augment your geo-literacy. When an announcer mentions a country other than the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, or a European nation by name, record it and mark it with a pushpin on your globe.

7. Find Elvis. He’s here, and not just in spirit. (Hint: he’s changed his last name to Gregory, and he’s a member of the Cuban fencing team.)

8. If you’re feeling really pesky, keep calling Channel 4 and asking the program director when they plan to show ballroom dancing, which is a demonstration sport this Olympiad. (Just don’t mention who put you up to it.)

9. If all else fails, you can simply turn down the volume for the duration. You’ll find that you won’t miss any of the action, you certainly won’t miss the chatter, and you can always un-mute the TV if you want to sing along with the national anthem during a medal ceremony.

Happy viewing.

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