Olympics

07.31.12

The Olympics Are Too Full of Dubious Sports, Silly Ceremonies, and Choke Artists

Who cares about synchronized diving? Is beach volleyball really a sport? And where is the good-versus-evil-empire competition that characterized U.S.–Russian match-ups and made the Games so much more fun? Buzz Bissinger sorts it out.

I am in confusion about the London Games.

Perhaps not as confused as the queen during the opiated opening ceremonies in witnessing a gaggle of beds form the initials of the National Health Service, which I doubt she knows about because I imagine neither she nor her corpulent Corgis utilize it, but personally confused nonetheless.

Like the Burt Lancaster character in Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City, who gazes at the seedy resort shore and says wistfully, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then,” I too long for the Olympics back then.

I miss terribly the 60s and 70s and part of the 80s when the Russians and the United States were athletically trying to kill each other, since by some miracle both countries realized that dropping the bomb was not a good option. It was fun to hate the Soviet Union. It was important, a way of building American pride, since we of course did it right while the Russians started grooming their own athletes from the age of six months by placing a shot put and javelin in the crib as well as estrogen and hormone tablets. There was of course the greatest sporting event in history at Lake Placid in 1980 when a scrappy U.S. Olympic beat a far superior Soviet Union in hockey, 4–3, to go on to win the gold.

The medal count meant something then, not what it does today since the Chinese, being the Chinese, purposely excel in obscure sports that no one else cares about with the exception of gymnastics, which is only interesting because Tim Daggett is even more unctuous and irritating than Matt Lauer during the opening ceremonies, and that is very, very hard and therefore bizarrely fascinating, like rubbernecking a car crash.

Call me Ishmael, but I don’t care about the synchronized-diving competition the Chinese won yesterday, except trying to figure out how exactly one decides to go into synchronized diving. It is difficult, but so is life. Much like I wonder how one becomes a beach-volleyball official from Egypt—an economic outgrowth of the Arab Spring I suppose.

I even miss the East German team when it was fun to figure out who exactly was a woman and who exactly a man and who exactly was both or neither.

I am still searching for a personality that actually seems like a personality.

The Olympics were something then.

I am not in London. Like most of you I watch on television or my iPad, and I do so with great confusion. Some outlets are live. Some are not. In the day and age of the Internet and social media, the NBC primetime version tries to give the deranged illusion that the events they are showing have not taken place yet, although they have, and you have to be an idiot not to know who has won. It strikes me as similar to the NCAA taking away 101 victories from Penn State even though they won 101 victories.

Plus they frontload the show with turgid events, hoping to make you stay tuned until something interesting, like a swimming finals, is actually broadcast. I have nothing against beach volleyball; America’s Misty May-Treanor is an incredible athlete. I find her instincts and dexterity and outstretched dives to keep the ball in play the single best Olympic performance, but I just don’t know if beach volleyball is a sport and there are virtually no rallies. Bing. Bang. Boring.

It receives inordinate attention on NBC because men like it, praying no doubt that the training bra the competitors wear will fall off and breasts suddenly assume that sexy sandy look. It receives high ratings, but so does that weird show in which celebrities like Howard Stern and Howie Mandel hit a big button.

There are many ads of course, and the one thing I have learned from the ads is that NBC might as well cancel its fall season. Things become more aggravating when I tap the Olympic Games’ iPad app that is supposed to give me video highlights of the previous day’s events. But I surrendered after two days of getting messages that the video doesn’t work.

The thing I like best about the Olympics is the sheer joy of those who win regardless of the country or origin. It does celebrate the result of tortuous work and relentless discipline, except for the Chinese, who when they win give off the vibe that they did not win enough and therefore are about to be imprisoned for sedition. The Australians particularly tickle me, perhaps after I read about the Aussie who decided to place some firecrackers in his butt cheeks and light them to see what it might feel like.

Not good.

Being an American, I do have a preference for our boys and girls. The big events during this first week are in swimming, and unfortunately I have to say that the big guns of the men’s teams not only seem unlikeable but also choke artists. Michael Phelps’s official Olympic photo, with scraggly beard and hair sticking out like professor Irwin Corey, was insulting. He does irritate me when he talks, a little bit too cool for school and obviously (also rightfully) thinking he is superior to everyone else, given his incredible past performance in Olympics. During an interview with Ryan Seacrest on NBC during the opening ceremonies that was unconsciously played instead of a tribute to the 52 victims of terror attacks in London in 2005, Phelps was asked if he would consider himself the best Olympian of all time if he won his 19th medal. He could and should have been gracious and contrite.

He didn’t train very hard for London, and it showed in his first race Saturday, leading any reasonable person to conclude that he didn’t want to be there in the first place and just should have retired. He seemed a shadow to his competitive nemesis, Ryan Lochte. The Florida native does have a certain charm, except when he drapes about on his skateboard during those insipid NBC bits with John McEnroe, who is wearing an undershirt for chrissakes. And when Lochte puts that silver contraption in his mouth, he looks like he's auditioning for Hangover 3. But Lochte did kick ass in the 400m individual medley on the first day of real competition, making Phelps look pathetic in the process. He won the gold while Phelps did not even medal.

Video screenshot

Michael Phelps places fourth in the 400m individual medley on the first day of competition.

Being a fair-weather fan of vast proportions, I immediately picked Lochte as my official American hero, until Phelps swam an incredible second leg in the 400m freestyle relay, and Lochte, in the anchor position with the lead, got caught from behind by France’s Yannick Angel. France for some reason has a very good freestyle-relay team, which given France, makes no sense to me at all. Skiing yes, but the performance in World War II is still hard to forgive.

The result of the relay caused me some confusion, forcing me to change my position on Phelps and perhaps wrongly thinking he still had nothing left. I still rooted for Lochte. I knew the 200 freestyle was his race, and I figured redemption, but he choked and screwed the pooch and did not win the gold and now he is off the hero list with Phelps once again creeping up. And today he set the medal record with a silver in the 200-meter butterfly and a gold in the 200-meter relay. I always knew he was misunderstood.

I am still searching for a personality that actually seems like a personality. So far, my favorite has been the Italian fencer Diego Occhiuzzi, who after beating his opponent in the semifinals to guarantee a medal, went into such paroxysms of joy that I thought he might be having an epic Italian death rattle in the style of poisoning by the Borgias. The man knows how to win with complete ungraciousness.

I like that.

So I watch the events, at least as many as I can figure out how to watch because of the confluence of NBC and MSNBC and CNBC and Bravo and NBC.com and NBC iPad. I still muse over Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies, which managed to take the great history of England and turn it into a banana republic. The ceremonies had a few moments of brilliance, such as the dropping of the Olympic rings in gorgeous fiery gold. But the helicopter ride of the queen and Daniel Craig as 007 was stupid. Rowan Atkinson as Mister Bean was even more stupid, first acting like his usual idiot self in the orchestral performance of Chariots of Fire where he tapped a single note on a keyboard, then inserted into a clip of the film of the same name in a tired rip-off of Billy Crystal at the Academy Awards and not nearly as funny.

I had no idea what Kenneth Branagh was doing with that little cigar hanging out of his mouth except looking for his next role with usual imperiousness. And I am still puzzled by the men in top hats and black coat and beards who were all over the lot seemingly performing a vigorous rowing stroke without any boats. The best part of the ceremony was the beginning segment, in which youth choirs from all over the realm sang beautifully. It touched the heart, those classically cherubic and expressive English faces singing against the backdrop of the ocean in Wales and the rock outcroppings of Ireland.

The games are not a bust. Lochte and Phelps can still find redemption. And remember that the mainstay of the Games, track and field, hasn’t started yet.

So stay tuned.

If you can figure it out.