I’m not much of a sports fan, but I love the Olympics. I know, I know —the International Olympic Committee is a bloated, corrupt institution; the amateur athletics label is outdated and hypocritical; it can royally suck to live in a city where the games are being held, and all the cool kids are watching NBA basketball. But I don’t care. The Olympic games are awesome. They are a celebration of humanity at its finest. The Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius—Faster, Higher Stronger—is as pure a distillation of the Enlightenment ideal as has ever been written. And even though the games are rife with nationalism, the gathering of our disparate tribes to compete with each other inevitably leads to the conclusion that humanity is all one big tribe, as the sportsmanship of the athletes surface to show that our commonalities clearly outweigh our differences.
As an Olympic fanboy, I was naturally excited as the 2012 London games approached. I believe it’s important to have goals, so, inspired by the Olympian ideal and given my current state of underemployment, I decided that this time around, I would watch ALL of the games. Of course, that’s pretty much impossible, given that there are 26 sports divided into 39 individual disciplines. So I refined my goal. I would watch at least one game-unit of each sport. Given that NBC was devoting 16 hours a day of their airtime on four different TV stations and streaming the entire games live on the internet, surely this would be possible. And if Michael Phelps could devote most of his life to his attempt to become the greatest Olympic athlete of all time, devoting a couple of weeks of my time on the couch with the iPad and cable TV was the least I could do, right?
I got started a day before the opening ceremonies when I accidentally caught a soccer game while trying to figure out exactly which channels I would be frequenting over the course of the Olympics. Its seems that the soccer tournament has to start early in order to fit a complete tournament in before the closing ceremonies. I filled in my first two entries in my Olympic journal: Men’s and Women’s Soccer. Cool, I thought. I have a head start!
The opening ceremonies are always a dicy proposition: A big-budget entertainment spectacle whose target audience is the entire human race is almost guaranteed to please no one. My wife and an out-of-town guest and I heckled our way through the Danny Boyle-directed proceedings with the aid of wine and Twitter, and it was great fun. From there on, I was steadily adding new events to my list: Middleweight Men’s Boxing, Women’s 100 M Butterfly, Men’s Table Tennis (single), Men’s Team Archery. Olympic boxing is quite different from the currently in-decline professional variety, in that competitors wear helmets and are awarded points primarily for cleanly landed punches. There are few knockouts, although I did see at least one lopsided fight that left the loser so addled I thought the fight should have been stopped. Elite table tennis is so fast it’s kind of hard to keep up with what’s going on; the Jedi-like reflexes the competitors display are mind-boggling. Watching archery on television sounds like a prefab boredom, but it was actually quite a compelling contest of wills, and the South Koreans had set a new world record before the opening ceremonies even got under way. So far, so good.
The various rowing sports also turned out to be fun to watch. It’s easy to understand—the boat that crosses the finish line first wins—and a lot more friendly to casual viewing than a 500-mile NASCAR race. Plus, it features the most heavy metal event name in the entire games: Women’s Double Sculls. With week one in full steam, I was already an aficionado of bizarre sports. My big discovery was team handball. It’s not the kind of handball you play on a squash court, but a fast-paced and occasionally brutal hybrid of basketball and soccer. I found myself repeatedly sucked into matches between Eastern European countries whose existence I was only aware of abstractly. Fencing is also a surprisingly great TV sport, with its flurries of furious activity punctuated by tense silences.
But at some point during the first week, it dawned on me that my quest to watch every event was already doomed. I saw references to American trap shooter Kim Rhode setting an Olympic record, but I didn’t recall any opportunities to actually watch the sport. Even though I was frequently flipping back and forth through three channels while simultaneously flipping through live streams on my iPad, I was still missing out. At first, I was trying to be charitable to NBC’s conundrum: so many sports, so little time and bandwidth. But as the games progressed, I became more and more enraged at their approach. If the Olympic Games represent the good about modern humanity, NBC’s coverage of it was symptomatic of all that is bad about modern corporate media. Take the gymnastics competition that dominated the first week of prime time coverage. It was so focused on Team USA that it was at times difficult to tell that there were any other teams competing. It reached the height of ridiculousness during the men’s all-around competition when the Americans had a painful collective meltdown. But instead of showing the other teams’ successes and failures on vault, pommel horse, and parallel bars, NBC’s directors kept focusing on the despairing faces of the American gymnasts. How can you even tell how a game is going if you can’t see how the other teams are doing? Eventually, even the commentators were saying things like, “Oh, something incredible just happened with the Japanese. I wish you could see it!”
If ABC had taken the same approach as NBC in Montreal in 1976, American audiences wouldn’t have seen Nadia Comaneci’s first-ever perfect 10. Instead, they would have seen the American team pouting because they were losing. As the games progressed, the pattern became clear: As far as the prime-time coverage was concerned, NBC had their preferred, marketing-tested narratives already written, and if events didn’t fit the narrative, they might as well not have happened. NBC believed that people wanted to see beach volleyball, Michael Phelps, and loving closeups of gymnastics, and that’s what they gave us. Even in week two, when the track and field (or, if you’re English, “athletics”) got rolling, there were glaring omissions, like the disgraceful choice of devoting only a five-minute montage to day one of the decathlon and choosing instead to show a preview of an awful new sitcom. What’s more important, the crowning of the world’s greatest all-round athlete or a bloated, doomed Matthew Perry vehicle? And what of my most anticipated event going in, the modern pentathlon, which combines fencing, horseback riding, swimming, running, and shooting freaking laser guns? You’d think that would merit maybe a few minutes in primetime, right? Not if you’re NBC. Even the marathon, a hugely popular sport that is traditionally the games’ last track and field event, went down the NBC memory hole in favor of an hour-long documentary on Winston Churchill.
Maybe it was because of the crappy coverage, but gymnastics were pretty disappointing this time around. The only bright spot was courtesy of American gold medalist Gabby Douglas’ guileless charisma, which managed to break through the commentator’s constant bitching. I found myself just feeling sorry for all of the other competitors, many of whom seemed like little kids getting their dreams shattered. Volleyball, on the other hand, turned out be a particularly watchable sport, both in the beach and team varieties. Sure, the women volleyballers were a great collection of eye candy, but they were also amazing athletes. And the men’s indoor volleyball produced one of the two most exciting moments I witnessed during the games: Russia's stunning comeback victory over Brazil in the gold medal game.
The other greatest moment among great moments was in women’s soccer, where Team USA beat Canada in what is already being called one of the greatest games ever played. I have seen a lot of soccer games, but I have to admit, I never really understood what people saw in the sport until that game. At one point, my wife came into the living room and said, “Honey, please don’t have a heart attack over a women’s soccer game.” Before then, I didn’t even think it would be a possibility.
Now it’s Monday, and the games are over, after a musical closing ceremony that NBC managed to botch by cutting the Who, the Kinks, and Muse performing the official song of the Olympics. My quest to watch every sport failed, but I think I can award myself at least a bronze medal, feeling good about what I accomplished (if an epic TV binge can be called an accomplishment) while I complain about the TV officials’ bad calls — which means I kind of understand how most bronze medalists must feel. After two weeks of vicariously mainlining peak human achievement, the prospect of fall football season seems dreary and common. Give me flash of the saber, the roar of mountain bike wheels, and the cries of the hammer throwers. Despite all the hype, and the best efforts of the corporate media to spoil it, the Olympic games remain awesome.
Chris McCoy is a Memphis filmmaker and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter here.