Thursday, August 07, 2008

8/7/08 - Olympics...So compelled!...So bored!...So confused...

I kind of love the Olympics, although I don't find myself particularly compelled to watch much of them, because the truth is that the televised summer Olympics are for the most part boring as sport. As spectacle, they're almost unbeatable, but I like spectacle with sports when the sports themselves are highly telegenic. And gymnastics is pretty telegenic, but it's also a solo act committed by small girls who I want set free from the tiny prisons of their bodies/training regimens.

But so much of the Olympics, as sport and a series of images removed from context, are fantastically boring. I'm as caught up in Phelpshype as anyone, but I have to convince my brain that it's exciting to watch eight guys swim really fast in a straight line. There was a window of time when the only 2 Olympic sports on were softball and beach volleyball, and I found myself channel-surfing to the food network, where a New York chef was making lame lion jokes in the middle of South Africa. My significant other claimed that the only Summer Olympic sports are track, swimming, and gymnastics, and was absolutely incredulous that beach volleyball was a sport. After watching a point or two of the match, I was inclined to agree except for the fact that I found the swimming to be just as yawn-inducing. Women's softball? I find an MLB no-hitter to be boring enough.

And yet.

Divorcing the events from the context of what they mean is a deliberate missing of the point, like eating fried chicken without the skin. The delights of the Olympics are all in the way that untelevised, un-telegenic sports like synchronized diving and table tennis and all the rest of the bizarre galaxy is infused through context with a grand master narrative. It's almost beside the point what the events are - as long as it rolls around every 4 years, and involves country vs. country action, there is enough large-scale narrative momentum to sustain the most mundane and/or bizarre of competitive "events".

So swimming is boring to watch, yes. But somehow everyone who had watched the astonishing Lezak rally couldn't stop raving about it; plugged into the communal Olympic spirit that charged an admittedly nigh-superhuman feat with the thrills that Lezak was doing if for 'Merica, dammit. We may not be able to invade the right country, and the French may have been right about the way, but they won't be able to...outSWIM us! I was not immune - I watched the whole thing replayed and got goosebumps all over my arms when Lezak touched the wall and the rest of the Americans screamed.

I would not have been so excited if not for the grand narrative trappings, the gloriously overstuffed opening ceremonies, the drama about China's cloudy skies and human rights record, the knowledge that just these minutes, these seconds are all the only windows that these athletes have to be venerated like the secular gods of the NBA, NFL, NCAA, etc. LeBron can have a bad night in at the Palace, but he'll be back next Thursday astride TNT like a colossus. Alicia Sacramone has these...minutes...and, not the steady uptick and downturn of a public athletic life, but a legacy that rests on the head of a pin. Context is all, as it is in most things, and to conclude: USA. #1.

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