' Cinema Romantico: First Week of the Olympics (as Seen Through the Prism of NBC)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

First Week of the Olympics (as Seen Through the Prism of NBC)

I watched the USA Women’s Gymnastics Team, six million cubic feet of raw acrobat power, win the hallowed Team Event final on tape delay via NBC. But the American women were so unruffled and dominant that I imagine watching it live still would have approximated tape delay, like it was so obvious they could not be beaten that competition would have felt like coronation. The team seemed to know it was foregone too. After all, immediately upon winning, the five members locked arms in a semi-circle around an NBC camera, gazed into America’s collective soul and altogether declared, twice, “We are the Final Five.” Four years ago, in London, the media dubbed the Gold Medal winning women’s gymnastics team as the Fierce Five, and they came sixteen years after the the press branded the USA’s first team to win the event as The Magnificent Seven. The five young women of right now, however, were not about to let someone else control their brand, and so they pre-planned their own moniker. Stick the landings, sure, but get your marketing ducks in order first. It’s a brave new world.


Their brand merged famously with NBC’s famous brand – that is, All-Americans Who Win. Kerri Walsh Jennings and her new beach volley balling bestie April Ross went 3 for 3. Katie Ledecky stomped all comers. Lilly King briefly re-ignited the Cold War. Michael Phelps kicked ass and created memes. Even on those rarest of occasions when NBC allowed a foreign competitor into their broadcast, like Australia’s 100 meter freestyle sensation Cate Campbell, for whom a puff piece was authored, an American, Simone Manuel, transcendently becoming the first black female to win swimming Gold, grabbed hold of the narrative anyway. Her winning moment, however, felt less packaged because it was less expected, an inadvertent reminder of grand the Olympics can be when the narrative imposes itself rather than the telecast dictating it. Had NBC shown Manuel on tape delay she would have got her own puff piece right before the race, not so subtly giving the result anyway. But NBC was as thrown for a loop as anyone, like they were a night earlier when a Kazakhstan swimmer, Dmitry Balandin, won his country’s first gold in swimming by improbably surging in from winners-never-come-from-all-the-way-over-there lane 8. “Where did this guy come from?!” NBC color commentator Rowdy Gaines hollered in one of those stock lines that suggested the possibility he did not necessarily do all his homework.

Missy Franklin came in last in a semi-final race from lane 8 a few days earlier. You might remember Missy Franklin from the London Olympics of four years ago, beaming that photogenic smile, winning medals up the wazoo, starring in the USA Swimming Team’s “Call Me Maybe” singalong. She was as prevalent as Michael Phelps. But prevalence is dictated by placement on the podium. And last place in a semi-final means no podium. Missy didn’t even get the traditional Absurdly Pointless Interview With Michele Tafoya While Trying To Catch Your Breath, as sure a sign as any that the value of her brand had plummeted in the Peacock’s eyes. No, her struggles were mentioned in passing, never really analyzed, and then forgotten, a cruel, unintentional yet no less true underscoring of America unceasingly demanding What Have You Done For Me Lately?

As easy at is to criticize NBC’s coverage, however, it’s simultaneously necessary to laud it. Well, maybe not the coverage itself, which essentially negated any commentary on the non-Olympic plight of Rio, went heavy on commercials and was Phelps-obsessed to the point that I have no idea how they will cope without him in Tokyo 2020 (show shots of him watching coverage on his sectional probably), but the amount of coverage, spread across NBC’s sister networks and the Internet. Twenty years ago finding an Olympic Water Polo match required paying obscene amounts for the infamous Triplecast; in 2016, on a Monday night, in America, I could easily watch a water polo clash between Croatia and Montenegro, which rivetingly concluded when the former’s Luka Bukić simultaneously reeled in a perfect entry pass and furiously released it toward the opposing goal where it landed with eight seconds left, nabbing them victory. (Parenthetical Tangent: Croatia’s national water polo team is called The Barracudas. America’s national water polo team is called the USA Men’s Senior National Water Polo Team. Do better with these things, America.)

On Wednesday, I stumbled upon a badminton match just seconds before China and the United States engineered a 46 shot rally. As the announcers explained, the Chinese were more or less toying with the hapless if valiant Americans, and so this was not traditional drama, yet it was mesmerizing nonetheless, an extraordinary display of shuttlecock exactitude and a reminder that these fringe-ish sports that often prompt people to say things like “That’s in the Olympics?!” belong just as much as anything else. The brand new Rugbys Seven, which like Match Sprint Cycling in '12 or Curling in '02, became my unexpected jam, belongs too. America’s men’s Rugby team, a genuinely motley crew, thrown together to take a shot against the world’s best and coming up well short, flew under the radar. Still, there was something noble in their attempt, and more than so many well-oiled, well-funded American squads, their ragtag origins and fiery desire in the face of long odds invoked our underdog beginnings.

America prefers underdogs that become winners, especially when they vanquish all-of-a-sudden mortal enemies as U.S. swimmer Maya DiRado did by beating Hungary's Iron Lady, Katinka Hosszú, who so emphatically dominated her first three races that the only explanation in the States was doping. She had to be doping. Otherwise, how could she beat Americans? Maybe she is doping, maybe she isn’t, I honestly have no idea and neither do you. And I did not, to be completely clear, leap to my feet when DiRado out touched Hosszú by a mere fingertip at the wall to win the 200 meter backstroke because she proved some patriotic point. No, I leapt up because the Iron Lady seemed unbeatable and DiRado conjured up a version of that magic first brewed at Olympia so long ago to beat her anyway.


As good as the race was, however, the medal ceremony was best. Oh, dear reader, have I seen some medal ceremonies in my time, but I can honestly say that DiRado’s might be my favorite. She smiled; she crossed her heart; she sang along; and then, she laughed. Michael Phelps laughed in a medal ceremony last week too, though that, as we learned, was because of some friends horsing around in the stands. Maya DiRado’s laugh was different. It was as if she was flooded with so much unexpected joy that she could not quite fathom what she was feeling and involuntarily cracked up. I will never forget it. Her laughter made me cry.

Just as good was afterwards, when she posed with silver medalist Hosszú and the bronze medalist, Hilary Caldwell. After the obligatory smattering of photos with their Olympic loot, a smiling Hosszú said something to to the also smiling DiRado and DiRado laughed again. That laugh was not a crackup; that was a laugh of “Hey, you said something funny and I am responding to it!” They looked like new friends, not antagonists. There was a lesson in it I think. 

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