TV Review - London 2012 Olympics

I am not a sports fan. I don't regularly follow or watch any athletics, but for some reason I will get sucked into the Olympics. For example, I know nothing about gymnastics. I never watch it, but yet I find myself riveted to the Pommel Horse or floor exercises. I think this happens to me because of two factors. One is the sheer bombardment. I like to watch NBC and its related cable channels, and for over two weeks NBC dedicates 12 to 16 hours a day to live or taped coverage. The same for MSNBC, CNBC, which mostly broadcasted boxing, and BRAVO, which mostly had tennis. When it's so much in your face, you can't help but pay a little attention to it. The second factor is something I didn't even consciously realize until a week after the London 2012 Olympics started on Friday, July 27.

On August 1, Barbara Walters was speaking about the Olympics on her ABC talk show The View. She brought up Roone Arledge, the former President of ABC Sports. Arledge was the man who acquired the Olympics for ABC television in 1964 and kept the games until 1988. Walters quoted Arledge when he asked, "Why should I care?" Walters implied that for Arledge the games themselves weren't enough. He wanted to care about the athletes. He wanted personal information like the athlete's background, their problems, their parents, or any private issues, perhaps to build dramatic stories. Walters praised this as Arledge's lasting contribution to the Olympics.

Two days later, on Friday, August 3, Brad Brevet on his Ropeofsilicon podcast complained about this so-called Arledge contribution, all this personal information. Brevet said he just wanted to see the sports. Brevet's co-host on the podcast, Laremy Legal, even mentioned that Debbie Phelps, the mom of swimmer Michael Phelps, received more airtime than even athletes who were breaking world records.

I certainly understand how this could be frustrating for avid sports fans, but being that I'm not but instead a film geek and former theater student, I appreciate the Arledge contribution, the drama behind all the running, jumping, throwing and swimming. It's also why I appreciated this year's opening ceremonies, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle. He may not have matched the spectacle of the 2008 opening ceremonies in Beijing, also directed by acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou, but Boyle did tell a dramatic story, three in fact.

Prior to the Parade of Nations, the opening ceremony is just a parade of one nation, whichever is the host country, so for the first hour, the whole thing is just one nod after another to Great Britain, which has hosted the Olympics three times now. If you're familiar with British pop culture, you recognized the nods to Eastenders, James Bond and Mr. Bean. Actually, you don't even need to be that familiar because those three things have been popularized in American culture to some degree. If you weren't familiar with British culture in general, it didn't matter because Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera were there in voice-over form to offer commentary during the three stories told.

Boyle began by depicting the history of England as it transitioned from an agrarian culture into the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of actors played the working class who built Britain. Boyle used them as symbols showing the forging of the five Olympic rings. Boyle's second story was a tribute to the work of J.M. Barrie and his support of children's healthcare where he re-created the most famous characters from British literature, including Peter Pan and Harry Potter, as dreamt and observed by children in a hospital. Boyle's third story was titled "Frankie and June Say Thanks Tim" and it was an ode to the digital age as well as to the music of the 1960s, 70s, 80, 90s and 2000s. Appropriately, it was a love story.

So, I like stories and prior to the start of the games, many stories were thrown out to get people in general, regardless of their interest in sports, to care about the athletes as simply humans trying to overcome adversity or achieve their dreams, which is something all can relate. Being that I work at a TV news station, I actually had to edit a couple of those human-interest stories a week or two before July 27.

This is how I first learned about Danell Leyva and John Orozco, two of the five male gymnasts on Team USA. Both my station, which is a CBS affiliate and NBC did pieces, which went into the sob stories of Leyva and Orozco. In fact, I have that sob story if you want to see it, click here. This video was enough to make me go online and read more about them. Lo and behold, I began to care about Levya and Orozco and dare say fall in love with the male gymnasts, so there I was on July 28 during their first day of competition glued to the screen.

If I hadn't seen their sob stories, I might not have been compelled to turn on men's gymnastics. I'm glad I did because all that swinging and flipping that those guys do are impressive. It's an amazing acrobatic skill that these men possess. They make it look easy but clearly it's not. There are over 20 different sports in the summer Olympics and none of them are easy, but, no matter the sob story, there are some events that no one can get me to watch.

Equestrian is one that I have personal aversion. An Olympic sport should be about what a human can do, not what a horse can do. How can you give a gold medal to someone who just sits on an animal's back the whole time? Boxing and fencing are too violent, though judo and wrestling don't bother me. Archery and shooting are too reliant on machines. Why not just make video games an Olympic sport? Cycling is a good use of machines, but the U.S. is currently ranked #5 in the sport. Weightlifting is just too boring.  I want to see a sport that has movement. Weightlifters just stand in one place, and show off brute strength and nothing else. NBC's Nightly News on August 5 did present a sob story about a female weightlifter named Sarah Robles, which still couldn't move me to that particular sport.

Carmelo Anthony
Most likely, the average sport enthusiast won't be moved to weightlifting either. Aside from U.S. men's basketball, most sport enthusiasts, including Stephen A. Smith, won't even know the names of the athletes in weightlifting, or rowing, or handball, or field hockey, or even volleyball. Because of which, the average American might only watch the men's basketball matches. The U.S. vs. Nigeria match during the preliminary round on August 2nd is evidence as to why. Next to big names like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, you have Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks scoring the most points ever by a U.S. Olympian in the highest scoring game in Olympic history with the highest margin of a win at 156-73.

Like with other team sports, such as soccer and water polo, being in the preliminary round and not pulling in gold puts basketball on the back-burner at least for the first week of the XXX Olympiad. NBC puts in prime-time the events where people are winning medals, and it isn't water polo or basketball where the medals are being won. It's swimming. As of August 6, the U.S. has collected 63 medals. 30 of those, about half, come from the swim team. Of those, the most from an individual came from Michael Phelps who garnered six medals, and honestly the first week of the 30th games could have been subtitled the "Michael Phelps Show." It's been non-stop talk about Phelps since the games started. He and the U.S. swimming team have dominated the conversation on air. They've even been lighting up YouTube with their "Call Me Maybe" video.

Again, going off Arledge's contribution, the Phelps talk all revolved around a dramatic story, a narrative that needed to be trumped. It was known that the 27-year-old from Maryland who had been swimming competitively since he was a teenager was going to retire after these races, making the London Olympics his last. During his exit interview with Bob Costas after his final event on Saturday, August 4, all of the questions merely fed into this narrative and his legacy.

This legacy was threatened on the first full day of events when Ryan Lochte beat Phelps in the 400 Individual Medley. Phelps didn't even earn a medal in that race. The friendship/rivalry between Phelps and Lochte became fodder that fueled headlines and commentary for a few days, actually for the entire week. It was more good drama that made Phelps' final swim on that Saturday all the more compelling.

Nevertheless, Phelps ended his career as the most decorated Olympian with 22 medals, 18 of which are gold. His final swim was a relay, which he won. A rising tide in this case did lift all boats, so gold medals went to his teammates as well. Those other teammates not only for the final relay but for others include Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen, the team captain, and Cullen Jones, the only black U.S. swimmer. With the exception of Hansen, maybe, all these guys will keep going and probably appear at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

All of them walked away with at least one gold medal. This last week of the London Olympics will focus more heavily on track & field events. Justin Gatlin, the Jamaican sprinter, won the bronze in the men's 100-meter. As a track runner, he's not as fast as Usain Bolt who won the gold and set a new record at 9.63 seconds. Sanya Richards-Ross took the gold in the 400m. No sob stories for them but NBC during the race in which he lost, the cameras were focused on Oscar Pistorius from South Africa. He's the "blade runner" with the artificial legs and feet. The winner of his race on Saturday didn't matter. The drama of a runner with no real legs or feet was more important.

Serena Williams
The Pistorius coverage was the only of its kind that I felt was a detraction, but generally I went for these sob stories. Not that the stories are always sad, often they're not. They're mainly inspirational and charged with emotion. The Troy Dumais story is an example. Dumais won the bronze for 3m synchronized diving. Dumais is 32. London is his fourth time representing the U.S., a record he shares with Greg Louganis, but Dumais who became an Olympiad in 2000 and who comes from a family of divers has never won a single medal. In 12 years, this bronze is his first. Seeing the sheer ups and downs emotionally of the U.S. women gymnasts, known as the Fab Five, as well as the thrill of Serena Williams on August 4 becoming only the second female player to win a career Golden Grand Slam was also a thrill.


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