Street Corner Soapbox: Jay Goes to the Olympics

Categories:  Street Corner Soapbox    Sports    Opinion
Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 at 7:30 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Jay Goes to the Olympics by Jay Stevens
A. Conaway

Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but I was away for a good chuck of the summer. At the Olympics, working a contract gig for NBC editing internal newsletters. So I was there, in London, for sport’s biggest pageantry. Here are some thoughts and observations:

The coverage. Okay, we all heard about Twitter’s #NBCfail, the taped prime-time segments, the mistakes made during the Opening Ceremony, its website noting that Australia is “located in Central Europe.” This stuff has been brought up elsewhere, and often.

But here’s the thing. Thirty-one million of you lunkheads tuned in to watch the Olympics every day, up 12 percent from the Beijing Olympics, and 26 percent from the Athens Games. NBC’s Olympic prime-time viewership tripled that of ABC, CBS, and Fox. Combined. That’s not including the people that streamed the Games live -- there were more than 150 million streams, more than double the number for the Beijing Olympics.

That is, for all the moaning and complaining, you people watched. What’s the lesson here? Apparently you don’t give a rat’s ass if it’s live, if NBC mangles geography, or if you can’t watch anything but swimming and women’s beach volleyball. You loved it.

And that’s all NBC cares about. Ratings. So, yeah, maybe NBC didn’t custom design its coverage around your likes and dislikes -- something we’ve grown accustomed to in the digital world -- but the network put a lot of fannies in a lot of seats.

Olympic Park. My first stroll through the Park came a couple of days before the Opening Ceremony. At that time it was a huge, empty expanse, dotted by monolithic stadiums, and dominated by endless pedestrian boulevards that were a half-mile broad. Walking anywhere was a hike, and the topography encouraged swiftness. I must have walked three miles a day just getting from the Tube to the media center. Then, before the crowds, you could see solitary Olympic athletes jogging the grounds. The souvenir stands were full of merchandise and empty of people. It was a place of promise, and fairly crackled with anticipation.

And then the Games started, and the crowds descended. It was thrilling in its way. It was a multinational crowd, with a dozen languages within earshot at any time, and Olympic-goers often bedecked in flags and national colors and silly hats. The Dutch in bright orange and traveling in packs and singing songs were perhaps the most overt -- with the Australians a close second -- but there were tens of thousands of others from all over the globe.

At first, the crowds were exciting. But soon they became a nuisance. Thousands of gawking, dawdling tourists wandering aimlessly through my commute to work! But I made up for it by playing a kind of walking game -- I would try to maintain a quick walking pace by weaving through the crowd. Kind of like a combination of Tetris, dodge ball, and race walking. So maybe I stepped on a few feet, but I enjoyed myself.

Swimming and medal counts. So the thing that irked me about NBC’s coverage was all the focus on swimming. Swimming was fantastic in Beijing. Michael Phelps’ chase of the gold-medal record was gripping, and there were a number of thrilling races -- who’ll ever forget the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay? With U.S. anchor Jason Lezak miraculously chasing down France’s former world-record holder Alain Bernard in the last 25 meters, to win the race by a touch at the wall? Amazing.
But this year, Phelps wasn’t on his game -- and churlish. Ryan Lochte was merely good -- and grating. And the constant attention to medal counts made it seem like we were running up the score, piling on, kicking the dog while it was down. Don’t know about you, but I like the underdog. I like a guy beating the odds. This was not that.

But how bogus is the medal count anyway? The individual count is tilted towards swimmers. In what other sport could an athlete win a half-dozen medals? I don’t think it’s right to consinder Phelps the best Olympic athlete of all time because of his medals. To me, it takes a lot more athleticism to win the decathlon. There you have to do well at 10 events to win one medal. Britain’s Daley Thompson in 1980 and 1984 was the last to win the decathlon twice -- and he won both during boycotted Games, when competition was slighter. The last to win two decathlon gold medals in non-boycotted years was the United States’ Bob Mathias, who did it in 1948 and 1952.

The medal count is also bogus for nations. After all, some sports have a dozen medals -- like shooting or wrestling or judo. If a country specializes in a medal-producing sport, they win more medals. The top four U.S. medal winners -- Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, and Ryan Lochte, all swimmers -- won 21 medals, including 14 gold. Mexico had one gold medal in 2012 -- but it was in men’s soccer, the most popular and highly-contested sport in the world. Who had the better Games?

The IBC and the Velodrome. I worked in the International Broadcasting Center -- the IBC -- an enormous warehouse of temporary rooms and halls filled with reporters, camera operators, producers, writers, and researchers. The international media. My desk was in a windowless nook of a larger windowless room. We called it “the Cave,” and I was Gollum, working on my precious documents 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for four straight weeks. The walk to the bathroom was long -- at least two hundred yards, perhaps more -- and I’d see the “talent” in the halls. Costas, Michaels, Seacrest. NBC had a commissary that was open 24 hours a day with a little Starbucks booth, and I saw the women’s gymnastics team there before an interview in the studio, wearing matching pink leotards and accompanied by an enormous entourage. I’d be at my desk usually until 2:30 in the morning, a couple of times as late as four, and when I returned to my hotel, the next day’s newspaper would already be hanging on my doorknob.

That is, I didn’t get out much. I saw only a handful of events. But my favorite, by far, was track cycling in the Velodrome. Shaped like a lopsided mushroom, the Velodrome inside was a low-ceilinged smallish arena seating -- what? -- 10, 15 thousand? The air was stifling hot and humid, and apparently the cyclists liked it that way, because the doors were pressurized to keep the air from escaping, and the staff at the doors were allowed to open them so often. Inside, the banked track and the racers seemed smaller and slower than on television, but the crowd was boisterous and knew when to cheer even if I didn’t.

The spirit of the games. It wasn’t difficult to feel jaded working the Games. The corporate sponsorships. The cost of tickets, the cost of merchandise. The celebrities and dignitaries flitting through the events (including Kate Middleton riding a golf cart outside the IBC). It all reeked of money and power and consumerism. And the coverage, focusing on medal counts, trying to create a rivalry with China, the deliberate avoidance of considering tough topics, like the economics of hosting the Games, racism and sexism in some of the teams, the ever-present doping. And there’s something about working on the production of a show, behind the scenes, that deflates the illusion.

And yet...after the Closing Ceremony, drinking beers at the media pub right behind the IBC with the friends I made working the Games -- also from a variety of countries, from Canada, Australia, Russia. A few members of CCTV are also at the pub -- China’s television station covering the Games -- nearby, when one comes over and takes the bright yellow CCTV jacket off his back and holds it out to our gymnastics research specialist pointing to his NBC jacket. He wants to trade. Scott agrees and hands over his jacket, puts on his new jacket. His Chinese counterpart steps forward and hugs him, suddenly. We clap and laugh and toast the exchange.

Where else but the Olympics?

Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@Eriereader.com

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