Clowns and Stars at the Five-Ring Circus

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“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” Vince Lombardi once said, and the mere thought of having to watch Bob Costas’s Bambi eyes grow ever larger in his enthusiastically fact-crammed skull for two weeks straight had pretty much left me limp and exhausted, afraid even to turn on the TV before “The Games of the XXIX Olympiad” (otherwise known as “the 2008 Olympics”) had begun.

But television critics are made of sterner stuff than (for example) florists, so I dutifully raised my carcass from the couch to commence yet another search for the aptly named remote. An added incentive to finding it were rumors that such was the revolutionary amplitude of NBC’s Olympic coverage to come, that this year’s viewers would be able to watch pretty much whatever event they wanted, such as, er, women’s beach volleyball, women’s pole vault, or even women’s table tennis Au Naturel, a brand new Olympic sport introduced by the French and shown on a secret channel (NBC-X) accessible only to a handful of dictators, multibillionaires, and media bigwigs such as your humble correspondent.

What I hadn’t counted on was the splendor of the opening ceremony. It was created by the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “House of Flying Daggers”), and such was the imaginative brilliance of the spectacle, not to mention its unnervingly epic scale, that after an hour or so I became convinced that somewhere in Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino was already on the phone to his agent, demanding that he be allowed to direct an opening ceremony. “Get me an Olympics, man! Didn’t you see ‘Kill Bill’?”

It was around this time that I also began to feel profoundly sorry for whoever is going to have to try to match Mr. Yimou in the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. At one point, according to Mr. Costas — who was joined by Matt Lauer and (more usefully) NBC’s China analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo — there were 2,008 tai chi masters performing with awe-inspiring precision in the equally awe-inspiring “Bird’s Nest” stadium. Given its population, China could probably have come up with 200,000 tai chi masters. What could the Brits come up with? I would have said bus conductors, but I think most of them have been phased out by advances in technology. Maybe soccer hooligans.

Anyway, on to the Games themselves. Women’s beach volleyball, which only became an Olympic sport in 1996, was on early, along with much discussion of whether two-time American champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who won gold in the event in 2004, could add a second triumph to their résumé. Given the fact that the sport is played in bikinis, and its stars are permanently tanned and in tip-top shape, it’s not hard to guess why it has become popular enough for NBC to mention it about 20 times more often than it does past Olympic stalwarts, such as the race to decide the fastest man in the world (the 100-meter dash, in case you’ve forgotten), which used to be quite a big deal. Perhaps it will be again by the time track and field rolls around.

The Americans’ first opponent was Japan, and at 6 feet 2, Ms. Walsh, the undisputed queen of the “spike,” towered over not only the net, but her two opponents, and (in a later photo op) President Bush. Undoubtedly she is the kind of woman the poet John Betjeman had in mind when he wrote “The Olympic Girl” in England’s bleak 1950s:

The sort of girl I like to see

Smiles down from her great height at me.

She stands in strong, athletic pose

And wrinkles her retroussé nose….

Were he alive today, I’m sure Betjeman, a poet laureate known for his love of Victorian architecture (there is a brand-new statue of him at London’s revamped St. Pancras Station, which visitors to the 2012 Olympics arriving on the EuroStar will pass in droves), would have purchased a very large high-definition flat-screen TV so as to watch the women of his dreams come to digital life.

Early on Sunday morning, Beijing appeared a very different place — gray, humid, and smog-bound — from the one that had electrified us during the opening ceremony. Mr. Costas, cutting a slightly forlorn figure, paid an early-morning visit to Tiananmen Square. To call the place “large” would be like referring to Yao Ming as “tall.” It’s the biggest square in the world, and though there must have been close to 1,000 people in it (including hundreds of white-clad tai chi masters in formation), it looked virtually empty. “On the north side, the Forbidden City,” Mr. Costas informed us, playing travel guide for a moment, though the entire square looked forbidding.

As for the “forbidden” as it applies to the Olympics themselves, NBC aired a segment on the subject of doping, the biggest blot on the sporting landscape. It was noted that an American swimmer, Jessica Hardy, had already been suspended prior to the Games for use of Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator that increases aerobic capacity and aids weight loss, but this “investigative report” was superficial in the extreme. For instance, it might have been pointed out that 41-year-old American swimmer Dara Torres was conveniently (some have said) diagnosed with asthma two years ago, and is thus legally prescribed similar bronchodilators while Ms. Hardy sits at home.

The most shameful blot on the television coverage has been NBC’s longstanding habit of only introducing one or two competitors in any event involving more than two people or teams. Thus, in an eight-man swimming heat, we’ll be shown an American warming up, a token foreigner, and that’s about it. This doesn’t happen in most other countries, where each swimmer is introduced in turn before he or she plunges into the pool and, after a while, NBC’s failure to do so not only seems chauvinistic and rude, but depersonalizes the races themselves. Who was that guy in Lane 7 who came in fifth? Unless he was American, you’ll never know.

bbernhard@nysun.com


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