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So Long, Bye-Bye To XXVIII

By Tom Shales
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page C01

What, over so soon? It's as though the Summer Games from Athens began a mere eternity or two ago. The sports marathon didn't even seem to attract the usual gaggle of wags to rename it jeeringly: The Low-lympics? The Slow-lympics? The Almost No-lympics?

Whatever nickname one might give them, the Summer Games from Athens on NBC were not, for the most part, riveting, edge-of the-couch television, though they may go down as the crankiest Olympics in some time. In nearly every venue there seemed to be a contretemps or even a donnybrook, from the German cyclist who flashed an obscene gesture as she sailed over the finish line, to the crowd at a men's gymnastics event who delayed American Paul Hamm's routine for 10 minutes so they could boo the judges for their sloppy scoring of Hamm's Russian predecessor in the competition.

The Olympic Rings take shape as the curtain drops on the Summer Games. (Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)

Maybe the original Olympics held in Greece all those years ago were marked by just as much hullabaloo -- plus everybody was naked, or so magazine accounts of ancient Olympics kept informing us. Imagine the challenge to TV cameras if the athletes were all running around in the nude this year -- and the appearance of anybody's naughty parts would incur a $989,000 fine from the berserk Federal Communications Commission. The fusty FCC has been laughably on the lookout ever since Janet Jackson's nipple made an unscheduled hello at the Super Bowl.

Last night's Closing Ceremonies were fitfully enthralling, but NBC producers decided to get cute and intercut the newly taped pageantry from earlier in the day with taped highlights from the past two weeks of Games, including moments that had already been repeated innumerable times and officially been turned into super-moments, iconic to the point of torture.

As at the Opening Ceremonies, an actor playing Eros, drifting and flitting on a wire above the crowd, provided a nicely audacious motif during last night's festivities, though outright eroticism was not exactly rampant. How can there be when crowds in heavy costumes are folk-dancing all over the stage below? The late Jack Paar often quoted as one of his favorite witty remarks, "Try everything once -- except incest and folk dancing."

Fragments of the Olympic flame were somehow breathed into egg-shaped containers and then carted off by pretty girls toward China, site of the next Summer Games. Then the enormous torch -- which comic Denis Leary, on last Friday's "Real Time With Bill Maher," accurately said looked like a giant joint -- tilted far forward so another cute little tyke could blow it out. Really.

She blew and the flame vanished and the Games were over, except for still more NBC commercials.

Indeed, the network's meretricious mercantilism hampered any attempt to watch the ceremonies on television. There was a commercial break at 9 p.m., another at 9:03, another at 9:10, another at 9:13, and so on. On TV, the Olympics are about not the love of sport but the love of money.

Despite inevitable moments of drama, joy and heartbreak, a cloud of torpor seemed to hang over these Olympics, some of it the morbid tension of holding such a massive and complex event in a post-9/11 world. In addition, going in, the Games were plagued with tales of delay and confusion and unfinished facilities. NBC Sports spokesman Kevin Sullivan said from Athens that more events might have been covered in the genuine wonder of high-definition television, available from most big-city NBC affiliates, if there hadn't been so many uncompleted facilities.

HDTV pictures broadcast in the Washington area by a digital subsidiary of NBC-owned WRC (on Channel "4.1") were a breathtaking smash. HDTV has been a long, long time coming and only a tiny minority of American families are fully HDTV-outfitted. But those who are had to be oohing with awe at the visual spectacle NBC was offering.

Even simple aerial travelogue shots -- essentially used as time-fillers when events ended before the hour -- had breathtaking shots of Greece in her glory. The deep blue sea really was a very deep blue.

Sullivan said the use of HDTV was limited by other factors, including a shortage of equipment in Europe, but promised that the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, "will be a lot better." Seeing the Games on a large screen in crisp and elegant detail definitely enhances the experience.

On a more frivolous but not insignificant level, the Summer Games suffered from a superstar shortage. Winning six gold medals instead of the hoped-for eight, American swimmer Michael Phelps didn't do quite as well as expected and viewers may well have tired of seeing his shaved armpits as he waved his hands in the air.

Americans celebrate their victories in the brashest and, sometimes, most vulgar possible ways. On the other hand, Phelps of course showed exemplary and encouraging sportsmanship by dropping out of a relay race so a teammate could participate, thus representing his country in a way that's more impressive than going mental over metal.

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