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.
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.
As usual, many of the young female gymnasts scored perfect 10s, or higher, in the all-important cuteness competition, their fannies thrust out in the traditional cute Olympic pose. But did any of them make the kind of splash that would guarantee a post-Olympic career as a sports commentator or product pitchperson? That's partly what the Olympics have long since become, of course -- the original "American Idol" or "Star Search," where the cereal box faces of tomorrow can be seen today.
It's a little late to complain about the commercialism of the Games, since that's been a fact of Olympic life for eons, but it can still be depressing. Viewers know that many athletes are there not for the glory of sport but for the promise of paychecks to come should they register high on the popularity charts. Corporate logos are everywhere.
At times, the Games turned into the Ego-lympics. Gymnast Paul Hamm did appear to get a raw deal when threatened with the loss of a gold medal on a technicality involving a competitor and some ridiculously arcane judging rules. And his performance had to suffer on the night he had to wait for the 10 minutes of unsportsmanlike booing to cease (though at every Olympics, boneheaded judges in certain events cause counterproductive controversies and ill will).
But there's Hamm and then there's ham. Speaking to an NBC reporter about the big boo bummer, Hamm said in his tiny, tinny and Munchkinny voice, "It was a very difficult situation, but I handled it very well." Oh -- okay. If you say so. The next morning on NBC's sun-drenched "Today" show, interviewed by a sockless Matt Lauer, Hamm called the judges' behavior "rather strange" but declared he was "really proud of myself for being able to handle it" and, further, was "extremely proud of all my performances here."
Matt of course nodded approvingly. Matt considers himself able to handle difficult situations very well every single day on NBC.
Clearly Hamm doesn't suffer from problems with self-esteem. It can be pretty sad to see these athletes so thrilled with having perfected skills that usually have no value in life other than at the Olympics. For some, the Games appear to symbolize not sportsmanship but me-manship.
Maybe they've spent a few too many hours practicing in front of a mirror.
And maybe the Olympics themselves would be more exciting from the get-go if they didn't come along so often. The restructuring done late in the last century means that TV networks -- in this case NBC, which has tied up the rights for a long time to come -- have to wait only two years between Olympic Games, summer and winter alternating. NBC will be back with Winter Games in February 2006 and, if true to form, will start promoting them sometime today, now that Athens is out of the way. The Olympics end, and the Promo-lympics gear up for another orgy.