It may just be a matter of presentation. But sports are theater, so that matters.
Whatever the reason, the Olympics are proving to be a lot more enjoyable in many ways than the sports we have daily access to. We’ve discovered the coffee in the place down the street is just as good as our usual place, some days maybe better. There’s an untainted satisfaction, a whiff of purity, in what we’re seeing. We crave it.
If nothing else, the London Olympic Games provides people with kindling for Facebook debates on the order of sport-or-not-a-sport (to me, subjectively judged sports are out), whether beach volleyball is light beer compared to the gym variety (I got flamed pretty heavily for choosing gym), and which sport has the best athletes.
But really, the Olympics are providing much more than that. Or, more accurately, providing the right stuff and saving us from the junk.
“I couldn’t hear them through my smile,” said Marti Malloy, the U.S. judo competitor, when asked if she noticed the cheers directed her way after she eclipsed her disappointment at missing the gold/silver medal final by winning her next match against Italian Giulia Quintavalle. The comeback win earned Malloy a bronze medal, which she considered a great success after failing to make the team in 2008 and going to Beijing as an observer.
In a perfectly charming interview later, Malloy, 26, spoke frankly and humbly about her ability, her plans for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and the sports she plans to take in on what is now her London vacation (after all, her work is done there). Surprised by the interviewer with a story of how another athlete had taken his medal into the shower and dropped it (it broke), Malloy did what we all would do. She said, “Why did he take it into the shower?”
It was more a conversation than an interview — the best ones always are — but it was just as pleasing for what Malloy didn’t say, or do. She did not try to be guarded. She did not string together cliches in the hope that the reporter would get away from her locker and leave her alone. She did not mind when the attention was not all on her. She did not try to be someone else.
Sound familiar? Of course not. It’s something we rarely see in pro sports. In day-to-day pro sports, even among the solid, well-behaved, easy-to-get-along-with athletes, the ones we tend to remember are the Michael Vicks, the Barry Bondses, — even the ones who are essentially good, we love to ridicule (Tim Tebow’s devotional pose may have annoyed some, but it was honest).
When a sport ascends the world stage (read: TV) every four years, there’s no time for that crap. We’re too busy figuring out the scoring system and the beauty of the newness of sports we only get to see in the Olympics. Judo? Knew what it was; never actually saw a match until today. The strategy in action transfixed me. Equestrian: lovely course for country day, magnificent animals, athletes up to age 60 working with their mounts, keeping their upper bodies under such confident control. Fencing is so fast, such an explosion of muscle and bravado, modernized by electronic detection systems but somehow retaining some of the allure of the centuries-old discipline that gave rise to it.
Olympic fans of a certain age lament the decline – indeed, the abandonment — of amateurism as a hallmark of Olympic purity and participation. It is sad, in a way, especially when you consider the metallic taste left in the mouth by the numberless gears of the Olympic marketing machine, always turning. But the inescapable fact is that in some of these sports, amateurs simply can’t keep up economically. NBC in its coverage has done its usual good job of telling stories of athletes who are not full-time competitors, people who work day jobs and train when they can and somehow make it to the world stage. So amateurism, while no longer central, is not gone from the Olympics.
What we don’t find in the five rings, though, are the things we never needed. There may be drama behind the scenes, but we don’t see it when the Olympics come back every two years (on the new winter/summer rotation) like a comet in the sky. I hear nothing of contract holdouts, draft choices, unresponsive owners, player unions, taxpayers held up to build a new stadium for a local sports team owned by a private corporation, athletes throwing people through barroom windows, athletes abusing animals, women, money, drugs, or each other…
In other words, there’s none of the crap — or at least a lot less of it. There is the one thing needful: sports. Faster, higher, stronger.
Late last night, when I was reading in bed, I heard a noise from downstairs, where my wife and son were still watching TV. It almost sounded like distress. It was certainly excitement of some kind that was making them yell like that. I almost got up to see what was wrong until I heard what they were saying: “Go! Go! Gooooo! Oh my gosh, he’s gonna make it!”
It was the men’s 4X100 swimming relay. Even video games don’t do that in our house.
So maybe it’s more than just a matter of presentation. And maybe it doesn’t matter. — Adam Barr
Copyright 2012 Adam Barr