The Winter Olympics have been to NBC what icebergs were to the Titanic. With the exception of the prime-time figure skating competition Tuesday, ratings have been subterranean, as the Torino Games have been routinely trounced by everything from American Idol to the Home Shopping Network. Thus far the network’s $613 million investment looks like it would have been better spent on Betamax stock. A question worth asking is why? The answers speak to everything that’s wrong with the arrogance of television networks and the hypocrisy and jingoism at the heart of the games. Let’s go through it point by point.
It’s amazing. America has never been a more dynamic, multicultural society and the world has never been more of a global village, but NBC still treats the games as if it were 1980 and the United States were taking on the Eastern Bloc. As Florida writer Pierre Tristam wrote in his blog, “NBC covers the Olympics the way American neocons do foreign policy: The world is 95 percent America, 3 percent water, and 2 percent everything else. America’s projection onto the world is mostly as an emblem of force, preferably unrivaled…. You get the sense that none but American athletes are in these competitions, just as the Bush White House gives the sense that all the world is collateral for American foreign policy. NBC has been trained for the task. The same people who brought us the Iraq war as show business and The Rescue of Jessica Lynch as truth, and who keep bringing us coverage of the White House as public relations, now bring us the Olympics as a two-week commercial for American power.” Call it the Bushwhacking of the games. Please, NBC. Rocky has retired and Ivan Drago has left the building.
In the age of real-time video on the Internet, showing the games on ten-hour tape delay is as anachronistic as shoulder pads and piano-key ties. For people actually interested in the outcomes, the answers are a keystroke away. Sports are about tension. As I write this, I already know that Sasha Cohen aced the short program in figure skating. Will I tune in to the prime-time broadcast? Maybe. If it were on live, I would have watched it or taped it. But for NBC to do that would mean losing precious advertising dollars. So viewers lose the very essence of what separates sports from pro wrestling: suspense and surprise at unanticipated outcomes.
Is your water cooler abuzz with news of the skeleton finals? What about the half-pipe? The slalom? No? Then congratulations, you don’t work in an insane asylum. Most of the sports highlighted by NBC seem to have been dreamed up in corporate boardrooms to sell Mountain Dew and manufacture medals for US athletes. No one knows or cares about these sports. In Las Vegas, where you can bet on whether the Super Bowl will start on time, there is no action on these competitions.
For reasons known only to members of the United States Olympic Committee, skier Miller was chosen as the person who would lead the American public to their television sets. Instead, after the publicity machine of the USOC got him on the cover of Time, Newsweek and every publication but Modern Bride, Miller emerged as a petulant brat. This would be forgivable, if he actually won–or even medaled–at his events. Miller not only lost, but seemed content to lose. The cardinal rule of Olympic sports is that you can be as arrogant and obnoxious as you wish, but you’d better back it up with results. Miller’s stock is falling faster than Dick Cheney futures.
It’s a damn shame NBC has messed up the Winter Olympics, because there has been drama a-plenty, enough to satisfy even a nation of reality TV junkies.
There was speed skater Shani Davis of Chicago becoming the first person of African descent to win an individual gold at the Winter Olympics–amid a feud with teammate Chad Hedrick. This culminated with a stunning turn in the 1,500-meter finals when Italy’s Enrico Fabris blew both out of the water and the subsequent press conference where Davis and Hedrick engaged in trash-talk icier than the Torino terrain.
There was an ice-dancing competition that looked more dangerous than crossing the track during the Daytona 500. Roman Kostomarov and Tatiana Navka of Russia won in dazzling fashion, as Kostomarov flew across the ice on one skate with Navka teetering on his knee.
And what about the mysterious raid by Italian police of the Austrian ski team, for suspected drug violation? The suspended Austrian coach Walter Mayer–working, we now know, with cooperation from Austrian officials–tried to sneak into Turin with a bag full of performance enhancing goodies. But Italian police were following Mayer and busted down the doors of the team’s hotel room. As players threw bags out of windows and flushed steroid-masking agents down the toilet, Coach Mayer made a mad dash and was captured 250 miles from Turin after attempting to bust through a police barricade. International Olympic Committee chairman Jacques Rogge later said, “It’s like being in a movie.”
In other words, there have been compelling acts of athletic derring-do and personal turmoil during these games. If only the NeoCon Bellowing Corporation would have had the imagination and the backbone to fully and fairly cover what was happening, these Winter Olympics would not have been such a staggering waste of time and talent.