Lately, I've read my share of pundits waxing on about the over-commercialization of the Olympics. And I've endured at least a year of political protest and political impact stories about these latest Games. To be certain, it is globally and historically significant that they are being held in the epicenter of communist China, Beijing. Despite my initial skepticism, this edition of the Summer Games is very much China's "coming out party". Which they are in dire need of.
The last time most of
us remember China in the world news involved the same
Tiananmen Square prominently featured in the Beijing 2008 coverage, but
with tanks rolling against student protesters in 1989 instead of
tourists and a peaceful collection of the world's greatest athletes, today.
And to that end, the Opening Ceremonies was the most amazing visual
display I have ever seen. So much so, that I hardly gave its $300 M
price tag a second thought. Who can put a price on the greatest
spectacle of the modern era? I mean, it cost the same money to film
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and nearly as much ($258M)
to film "SpiderMan 3". Now which two of those three would you
categorize as a "waste"? Besides, in case you were wondering how
amazing something would have to be to make you forget decades of human
rights abuses, now you know.
What's more, I'm well aware that I'm being pandered to with all the "Athlete Profiles" of courage, perseverance, overcoming the odds, etc. The list of anchors that they have hosting the coverage is like a who's who of over-stylized and hyperdramatic sports reporters: Bob Costas, anchoring the prime time coverage (a man who never met a dramatic pause he didn't like), Jim Lampley handling daytime (who clearly rehearsed his delivery after watching the Jim McKay Munich tapes... honestly, do fencing medal results really need any gravitas?); Mary Carillo sitting in for late night coverage (who is still trying to get us to care about tennis); other Olympic correspondents including Cris Collinsworth (who has honestly aged 20 years since 2005) and Jimmy Roberts (who is single-handedly trying to revive the cardigan as a wardrobe staple). Thankfully, after much complaining, NBC pared the number of these "Portraits of Courage" down to nearly half the number they subjected us to in 2004 - but in fairness, I've found the drama of the folks on America's Got Talent to be a whole lot more compelling anyways.
But nevertheless, I'm still a teary eyed mess while watching the Games.
Yes, that's right, you heard me. I'm a blinking, sniffling, red-eyed disaster, holed up in my living room alone (so as to avoid the embarassment of publicly humiliating myself) and watching the endless hours of Olympic coverage - nearly every moment of the day for the next two weeks. And it's never during the swelling-orchestral-music/ athlete-silhouetted-in-front-of-their-hometown-sunset/ here's-why-you-should-cheer-for-this-guy parts of the broadcasts. It's watching the competitions themselves, and those unparalleled medal ceremonies. Winning, like many previously wonderful things, has become corporate and commoditized. Most of our winners these days are looking for endorsement deals, contract extensions or free agency while they're still crossing the finish line (or perhaps even before), the simple joy of winning replaced by the prurient pleasure of excessive wealth. But there are no such deals for most Olympic champions (basketball excluded). I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of personal sacrifice required to be the best swimmer, gymnast or diver in the world. Especially when even if your sacrifice and innate talent come together in such serindipitous harmony that you do win a gold medal, you're still going to have to come home a earn a living doing something else. Years and years spent training in relative obscurity, sacrificing the allowable excesses of youth, all for the chance to triumph - for it's own sake and nothing more. It is a beautiful thing.
We live in a world full of posers and pretenders (for reference, see Kevin Federline, reality television referring to its successful participants as "stars" and, of course, Paris Hilton). So full, in fact, that we've actually come to allow them to crown their own champions. Braggarts and wannabes, deciding who amongst them is the best. The apocalypse really must be imminent. It's come to point where triumphant poses are almost always laughable. But when one of these Olympic champions pumps their fists, raises their arms to the sky, closes their eyes, or screams into the air, its the real thing, and its well deserved. It's in these true moments of unadulterated and pure joy that I become captivated, trying to imagine what it must be like to succeed so completely and so utterly beyond doubt. And as many of them are moved to tears, I can't help but be either.
The relationship between nations and their athletes is likely overstated by the aforementioned commentators. It is blissfully ignorant to believe that these young, focused athletes are competing for the citizens of their country. No, they're competing for themselves, and as well they should be. We didn't spend those long hours with them in the gym or the pool. Most of us didn't contribute in any way to their accomplishment (eating a McDonald's Olympic themed value meal does not count). But that's not why we cheer for them. We cheer because, in some way, they're one of us; because they represent us to the world, the best of us; because they are proud of the flag they wear; the same flag we wave back home, and that flies over our capitals. Medal ceremonies are then special moments; a throwback to a time long-passed. And as each of the top three competitors is announced, they are presented with their medal, and a gift from the host nation (flowers or a laurel wreath). Finally, their flag is raised, and for the gold medal winner, their national anthem played. Undoubtedly, this ceremony is a moment that each of them have dreamed of participating in, and reaching any goal so lofty could easily break down even the most hardened of competitors. But what's more, it is the feeling of an entire nation cheering and celebrating with you; an emotional tidal wave crashing, in its entirety, into one person in one moment. It's easy to see how that can easily turn a steely glare into weepy, blinking sobs. And although I've never known anything even close, it's hard not to empathize.
In the end, there will be more than 3600 hours of Olympic coverage provided by NBC (meaning north of 700 hours of advertising), for the privilege of broadcasting which NBC spent $894 Million (more than the annual GDP of 27 countries). There's no doubting the commercial side of the Games. But, as much as I loathe having the new season of "Chuck" force-fed to me, and feeling as though buying an American car is required of me if I'm to feel right rooting for American athletes, I will watch (I will not, however, watch "Chuck" or buy an American car). Because in a time and place where all the drama around me seems affected and contrived, sports is maybe the only real drama left and even there it's dwindling. But for all the things that these Summer Games purport to be and are not, there is one thing that they are: a chance to bear witness to the limitless power of the human spirit, the unselfish joy it brings and a beauty so overwhelming that it brings you to tears.