All right, so I know you don’t read this blog for Olympic commentary, just as you’re not going to fire up ESPN.com to find quotes from Demetruce McNeal’s high school coach. But when writing is as much of a habit as it is for your humble Auburn Blogger, and he spends more time over a two week period watching one particular sporting event than he does sleeping, eventually push comes to shove … and thoughts have to put down on cyberpaper.
So you’re getting a collection of mostly random Olympic observations this afternoon, and you’ll just have to deal. Sorry. But here we go:
Dude, you ask me, the Winter Olympics are just better than they used to be. They’ve always been fun. But it feels like they’ve never been quite this all-consumingly kick-ass, and there’s two primary reasons:
1. There’s more to watch. A lot of the traditional Winter Games events–the alpine downhills, hockey tournament, even biathlon now that NBC’s actually deigning to show it to us–are as much fun to watch as ever. But a lot of those traditional events are also of the repetitive, time-trial variety, and just aren’t that interesting past the first few attempts. The final two or three luge runs or ski jumps can have an awful lot of drama to them, but the 20 prior … not so much.
But look at the events introduced since, say, the ’88 Calgary games: the moguls, which combine the danger and speed of alpine skiing with the acrobatics of freestyle; snowboard- and ski-cross, which, I mean, why did we not have four people racing side-by-side years ago?; the men’s halfpipe, the best three or four practitioners of which are just eye-popping; curling, more on which in a second; and short track speed skating, which puts a knot in my stomach every single time there’s an American on the ice and has resulted in an unnatural hatred for the nation of South Korea.
I love the long-track version as much as the next guy (more, probably), but yes, 30 minutes of long track and 30 minutes of, say, snowboard cross elimination rounds is a better hour of television than 60 minutes of skating.
2. The Americans are better. This is probably a negative for the rest of the world, but screw those guys, I want to watch Americans and I want to watch Americans who have medal chances, and not the kind of “well, if the first 26 guys all came down with food poisoning last night, the American will have a shot at bronze” chances we used to see in cross-country, biathlon, the sliding events, etc. It would be one thing if the U.S. was topping the medal count solely on halfpipe sweeps and the Bode-Vonn alpine tag team, but ye gods, the U.S. has two silver medals in Nordic combined, both of them won after heart-stopping last-second dashes for gold. (The other teams won the gold, unfortunately, but still: if you were bored by either one of those finishes, why were you watching in the first place?) Tim Burke was in medal position halfway through one of the biathlon events before badly misfiring at one of his shooting stations. The hockey team’s good again. Ice dancing. Moguls. Good old men’s speed skating.
These days it almost doesn’t matter what you’re watching; you’re going to have the chance to watch and root for an American. And that does matter.
Everyone take a moment to thank NBC for their coverage. Now take a moment to beat them with sticks. On the one hand, is there any arguing with the notion that overall Olympic coverage is the best it’s ever been? Every hockey match has been televised. Ditto every American curling match, start to finish. Entire biathlon and cross country races have been aired, something I’m 99 percent certain is a first. Save Mary Carillo and Jimmy Roberts’ cheeseball human-interest segments, the broadcasting talent has never been stronger, in my opinion; everyone from Bob Costas and Bob Costas’s hair dye right on down through to old pros like Tom Hammond and Al Trautwig and ski jumping color man Jeff Hastings–who can somehow point out something different and useful for every jump in a series of 30–has been rock solid. And it’s nearly all in HD. Compare this smorgasbord to, say, CBS’s butchery of the ’94 and ’98 Games, and we’re talking about light years of improvement.
But there’s still light years to go, thanks to NBC’s absolutely infuriating insistence on tape-delaying and squishing into primetime anything they think Joe the Plumber might be remotely interested in watching. Nevermind that the USA/CNBC/MSNBC block of networks give them a perfect opportunity to air the men’s downhill or the U.S. Nordic combined team’s run to silver, to name two events they eviscerated in the name of squeezing them into tiny blocks between figure skating coverage. There’s one person out there who wouldn’t watch the primetime broadcast without the afternoon event in question but will keep themselves unspoiled to watch it later, and NBC’s going to make absolutely sure that one person watches in prime time. A nation of sports fans can just go screw themselves.
There’s always griping about the human interest garbage and the avalanche of figure skating, but I can’t really blame NBC for giving their primetime broadcast the broadest appeal possible; that’s where their financial bread is buttered. And you have to give them some level of credit–more than they’ve gotten from most bloggers–for the advancements they’ve made since the ’98 nadir. But it costs them nothing to just air daytime events in the daytime and recap them later. The diehards are happy, the figure skating-lovin’ casuals are happy, everyone’s happy. Until they wake up, NBC can go bite rocks no matter how many curling matches they air. Speaking of which …
Curling = addiction. I know just typing those two words with an equal sign between them will probably get me stopped at the Alabama border and deported to Bemidji next time I try to come home, but it’s true. Brian Cook explains many of the reasons why–the multitude of strategy decisions, the hilariously incoherent screaming, Eve Muirhead and the like–but I’ll add a few more:
— The drama. 10 or 11 ends and up to three hours of competition can come down to one throw of the rock. Make it, you win. Miss it, you lose. If it’s a particularly tough shot, the slide of the rock down the ice is no different from the hang of a basketball in the air when the buzzer’s already sounded.
— Again, NBC put together a crackerjack announcing team. They stole Don Duguid and Colleen Jones from the CBC to do color, and both are perfect: respectful of the curlers on the ice but mincing no words when they screwed up (as the Americans did so, so often), never talking down to the curling-n00b audience but only rarely lapsing into obscurity, both delightfully Canadian. Play-by-play guy Andrew Catalon has hammered some of the same notes a little too often if (like me) you’ve watched match after match after match, but overall he’s done a fine job of welcoming new viewers and then getting the hell out of Duguid’s and Jones’ way.
— The shots. You didn’t see them very often watching the U.S., but occasionally the Canadians or the Brits would uncork a shot that seemed to defy the laws of physics as they would pertain to stones and 80 feet of ice and inertia. The best of them involved banging one stone into another into another into another, like something from those billiards trick-shot competitions you see on ESPN, only in the Olympics … on ice … from 80 feet away … with 42-pound stones.
For all of that, some of the off-ice hubbub was almost as interesting, especially where the hapless Americans were concerned. Poor John Shuster missed four potential game-winners over the course of three matches, then got benched–despite the fact that he was the guy who put the team together and won the Olympic trials in the first place–and complained to NBC’s interviewers about getting blasted on Twitter.A U.S. Curling official later griped about osme of the negative press that greeted his team’s rock-bottom performance. (Seriously: the U.S. finished dead last in both the men’s and women’s standings, 10th out of 10.)
No doubt some of the press and some of the comments about Shuster–a bartender by trade–were unnecessarily cruel (perhaps even mine), but … dude, isn’t this progress? Since when has anyone even begun to care about how well the Americans have done at curling? Anger and disappointment’s better than ambivalence, right? Besides, Mr. Shuster: you put on a uniform emblazoned with the Olympic logo and the initials “U.S.A.,” and you’d better perform your best. You don’t have to win, but you have to be your best or we’re going to be unhappy with how you’re representing your country. And by your own admission: that was not your best.
Other assorted thoughts: By this point, I’m not really rooting for Apolo Ohno–overhyped and maybe a little more pleased with himself than he should be–than I am rooting against the machine-like Koreans. If Ohno gets demerits for not really living up to his billing, I will give him credit for being just about the only guy over the last three Olympics who’s stood up to the Korean onslaught … I’m serious about biathlon. Three or four skiers pull into the shooting station, and whoever shoots best wins the gold; it’s riveting stuff … The best thing about the U.S.-Canada hockey match? (well, besides it being maybe the most exciting game of hockey I’ve ever seen?) Being able to hate the Canadians. Those chances are few and far between.
Photo via this well-done LA Times story on the Nordic combined team silver.