Monday, August 25, 2008
The Olympics are over, so I'll be in withdrawal for at least a week as I channel surf for weight-lifting at 2 a.m. The Olympics are a hard habit to break – a sports soap opera with melodrama, bad acting, gorgeous characters, and story lines that include every type of illness, tragedy, human failing, and bad luck. We have the French threatening the Americans with the phrase, "We will smash you," and then the U.S. prevailing by eight one hundredths of a second. We have a 200 meter sprinter doing his victory lap for winning the silver only to watch his face as he discovers he was disqualified for stepping on the lane line. We have a Chinese gymnast who clearly is still teething being passed off as sixteen and then being revealed for her true age. The fallout from that debacle may include a huge readjustment of gold medals in the favor of the U.S. team. Stay tuned.
The human interest stories attract me. I can't help it – truth is stranger than fiction. The soap opera elements explode with a swimmer who lost her leg, a diver competing with a torn tricep, a boxer who nearly went blind, and a family who mortgaged their house three times to keep their athlete in the sport (wait, I think that's my story). The dramatic stories of the Olympics rarely outweighs the excitement of the competition. But the network can't just let the competitive drama unfold on its own. Back stories add some punch that keeps viewers hanging on long enough to catch that Coke or Budweiser commercial for the umpteenth time. But the unexpected drama of the competition remains steadfast. Both the U.S. men's and women's 4 X 100 track relay teams dropped the baton in the first heat, leaving the U.S. track team sputtering and choking back tears at the post-heat interviews. What do you say when asked, "What happened and how does this affect you?" Years of training, sacrifice, and expense dashed in a split second. After dropping the baton, Lauryn Williams turned around barely avoiding several runners, picked up the baton and finished the race even though she knew the U.S. was disqualified. As she put it, "I had to finish the race. I couldn't go home without finishing." Now that's powerful drama!
Soccer drama came early with the elimination of the U.S. men's soccer team. They didn't make it out of their bracket losing to Nigeria in their last game. The pundits had lots to say about the reason for the lackluster team performance. Soccer message boards were overflowing with opinions, recriminations, support, and just plain babble. In the meantime the U.S. women trudged through their matches without the steady, experienced, but injured, Abby Wambach, pulling together as a team of equals and managing to overcome the Brazil women in the gold medal match with an appropriately named "golden" goal in the second overtime. The U.S. women were underdogs, but didn't play as if they were. The Brazilians had their superstar Marta but still couldn't manage to scoot a goal past Hope Solo who stepped up with new maturity and determination after her World Cup meltdown and banishment from the team. Reads like a Lifetime movie.
Apparently soccer wasn't dramatic enough as NBC didn't highlight it. The men's games were easier to find than the women's, but soccer wasn't really a priority on the NBC five network lineups. Executives did create two special channels just for soccer and basketball, but less than half the cable providers carried the feeds. However there was no shortage of beach volleyball. I enjoyed watching these games and got very excited by the double win of gold for both the American women and men. In the meantime the women's soccer final game was difficult to find and NBC carried few highlights after winning the gold. I guess a two hour game with women in shorts isn't as easy to market to advertisers as a 45 minute game with women in bikinis, drama or no drama.
The opening ceremonies set the stage for emotion and awe and the closing ceremonies made us hunger for more. I'll be wishing for another tooth and nail finish, another heart-tugging tale, another controversy, another surprising triumph, and another chance to feel pride in my country and in the world. While the Olympics can reveal the ugly tears in the world's political fabric, it can also make us root for first Olympic medal for Uzbekistan and cheer for the female sprinter from Bahrain in traditional head scarf and covered neck to ankle in a running suit. We can respect the traditions, spirit, and dreams of all the athletes. I really do love the Olympics.