The Washington Post

London Olympics: I don’t quite follow

When you watch the Olympics with friends and family, you spend a lot of time saying to your companions “Now what’s happening?” and “Who’s this?” and “What do they call this sport?” and “Can anyone tell me the score?” and “Why is she crying?” and “Is that the guy we like or the guy we don’t like?” and “What if we switch to the baseball game for just a couple of innings?”

And that’s just during the Opening Ceremonies!

Don’t get me wrong, I love the family-viewing nature of the Olympics — the way there’s something in the nightly NBC prime-time broadcast to appeal to each and every person in the family who happens to be female. And guys can watch too! But if you’re a certain kind of guy you may find yourself periodically going through a kind of withdrawal, in which at the cellular level your flesh begins screaming for someone, anyone, to score a touchdown.

Apparently they play basketball in the Olympics, and soccer, and other stuff involving a ball, and there’s boxing, but you usually can’t see that kind of thing in prime time because we must obsess over gymnastics and swimming and the heroic parenting that the athletes in these sports require. Half the prime-time coverage features parents fussing and weeping and fist-pumping and putting all kinds of body English into their parental spectating.

NBC in its wisdom has decided that we don’t need a graphic anywhere on the screen telling us if we’re watching a 100-meter sprint or a 400-meter individual medley or a 200-meter whatever. Sometimes races will end before you’re psychically ready for them to end; other times the swimmers keep going and going as if waiting for someone to tell them they can stop. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than doing a fist-pump in your living room when your swimmer wins and then discover that it was just a heat and not a final. I hate those moments of Viewer Error.

But swimming is extraordinarly linear and simple — you can tell who is fastest just by watching — compared to gymnastics, in which the scoring is seemingly subjective and mysterious. Also cruel. There’s a sadistic element to gymnastics. These apparatuses are like medieval instruments of torture. I am SURE that I saw a pommel horse in an old Vincent Price movie. Scoring is judged against the standard of perfection. One slight mis-step out of bounds in the floor exercise and your lifelong dreams will be crushed and then ground by the bootheel of fate into the dust of eternal oblivion. Let’s get the close-up on that anguished face.

There are many of us who pay attention to gymnasts quadrennially and have not quite gotten around to reading up on the Olympics and the Olympians in advance of these epochal events. World-champion athletes finally have their prime time moment and we’re just now figuring out who they are and whether we want to root for them or not. Some of us are fully four years or even eight years or more behind the times. I keep wondering how Mark Spitz will do this year. I’m still sore about the Soviets stealing that basketball game when the refs kept putting time on the clock.

To this day I wince every time I meet a Soviet and am forced to make small-talk.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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