Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Olympic Ideal Meets Reality In PyeongChang

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 1:38 PM

The first sporting event ever broadcast on television was the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Olympic movement was four decades old at that point, but, for better or worse, it came of age with the birth of television.

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In 2018, the television medium is in a state of flux. The moving pictures on the screen are better than ever, but online streaming is changing the audience's taste and expectations. Live sports is supposedly what the traditional TV delivery system does best. It's the strongest argument for the continued existence of the networks and the pay cable system. NBC long ago won the rights to broadcast the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and its parent company Comcast, which hold the lion's share of the Memphis broadband duopoly, intends to make the most of the situation. In my case, that meant relentlessly pushing me to send in my old box and take up their new X1 system.

Now, if you're going to be making the case that your rent-seeking business model is still viable in the Netflix age, your best first move is to deliver a working product. After a promised $50 drop in my monthly rate finally cajoled me into plunging into the hell dimension of frustration and inconvenience that is dealing with Comcast, I ordered the new box on the Xfinity website. Surely, in our current age of techo-wizardry, the city's largest communications company could deliver a working product to me. After all, my Apple TV was streaming content into my eyeballs only minutes after I hooked it up, and it's much more complex than a cable set top box. If Comcast is shipping product, they've got this stuff nailed down, right?

I was so wrong. It took five days to get my new box up and running. I spoke to no less than six Comcast techs on the phone and two on Twitter.  Day of this seamless process was Super Bowl Sunday, so I missed the big game. Finally, a tech came out to my house and got it running. I asked him why none of the eight people Comcast had put me in contact with had been able to fix the problems. He shrugged, "I guess they didn't know what they were doing."

Fortunately, two days later, the South Korean organizers of the PyeongChange Olympics proved that they did know what they were doing. The opening ceremonies came off very smoothly on television, despite the fact that there was an ongoing cyberattack of probable Russian origin trying to derail the festivities.

The games are one of the few moments when the entire world comes together, so there's always a geopolitical angle to proceedings. This year's two biggest stories are the Russian team's banning for a systemic doping program and North and South Korea fielding a unified team. The Russian athletes who could pass drug tests are competing under the Olympic flag, even though the team's banning was the likely motive behind the cyberattack. As for the two Koreas, they certainly didn't seem like a people staring down the possibility of a catastrophic war, no matter how Vice President Pence was there to spin it. Maybe you can count that as a win for the Olympic ideal.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I like the Olympics. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with the way the Olympics are handled and presented in 2018. But there are problems with every human organization and endeavor in 2018. At least someone is taking the Olympic truce seriously. The comity and good sportsman- (sportsperson?) ship of the games seems to be in full effect, temporarily, at least, overcoming the darkness and horror all around us.

As a TV spectacle, this year's games have already exceeded the glum, vaguely scary 2014 Sochi games. The organizers have fought gusty winds and extreme cold, but the artificial snow has been groomed to perfection, and the competitions have been very well administered. NBC seems to have taken the criticism of the last couple of games to heart, and their coverage is much improved. The commentary is more thoughtful and informative and, crucially, seems to lack the urge to keep talking even when they have nothing to say, with a couple of exceptions such as the women's snowboarding competition, which was plagued by a chatty announcer as well as a high winds, and downhill skier-turned announcer Bode Miller's thoughtless comment that a female competitor's recent struggles were the result of her getting married.

Visually, the games have never looked better. The 4K video brings out incredible detail and contrast in the often washed out white snowy environment. The use of drones has been exceptionally well handled, bringing cross country skiing and the halfpipe snowboarding events new perspectives that add to the depth of viewers' experience.

With everything going so well, it was immensely jarring when the coverage was interrupted yesterday afternoon with breaking news reports on the latest mass gun slaughter in America, this time in a Florida high school. That night, as victors dedicated their performances to the victims, it felt like the spell had been broken. The Olympic ideal, it seems, is no match for the harshness of American reality.

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