Monday, February 27, 2006

olympics (pt. 2)

There are all sorts of things I love about the Olympics. Even the always-goofy opening and closing ceremonies, something I think I ought to try to explain. Olympic opening and closing ceremonies have always been a guilty pleasure: Gloriously middlebrow events full of bombastic, empty spectacle, pompous ritual, and supreme cheesiness all around. They're great that way. This year's ceremonies were great even by the usual Olympic standards. They had everything: Incomprehensible plotlines, goofy costumes, people dancing with plastic cows, a Ferrari doing donuts in the middle of the stadium, a Ricky Martin concert, poorly synchronized and unimpressive faux Cirque du Soleil routines, a survey of the greatest disco hits of the 70's while the athletes entered the stadium, giving the athletes red clown noses to wear at the closing ceremony (which almost none of them did), and so on. I think there probably was supposed to be an ultra-noble and abstract organizing theme, or concept, or at least slogan behind each ceremony, but unofficially for both of them it was the usual one: "One Damn Thing After Another". Still, after ten years nobody's yet managed to top those chrome pickup trucks back at the Atlanta games. That was just.... priceless. And am I the only person who thought having Muhammad Ali light the torch in Atlanta was actually kind of sad and painful to watch? He got that way by doing something he first became famous for in the Olympics, to top it all off.

Our local NBC affiliate had a crew in Torino, and they were interviewing people after the closing ceremony. One guy said he liked it better than the opening ceremony, which he thought was really confusing and "full of culture". You can't make up stuff like this. It's pure gold.

I'm not actually sure how much we can blame the Torino organizers for the disjointed nature of the ceremonies, since all I've seen of them is NBC's coverage. Last night's closing ceremony was especially bad that way, and it was obvious it'd been hacked up and reordered to fit NBC's own tastes. Every now and then they'd break in to the ceremony for an extended reminiscence about one of the US gold medalists, and I got the impression they were cutting large parts of the ceremony so they could fit in all the sappy instant nostalgia crap. But the worst, the absolute worst part was the near hour-long Tom Brokaw piece about how glorious World War II was. NBC seems to think that the important lesson everyone should come away with from the last two weeks is that we all need to stay perpetually misty-eyed about the exciting and wonderful world of war. Let me go out on a limb and propose that in the future, the phrase "enemy machine gun nest" should never, ever appear in any Olympic coverage, period. If you'd had company over to watch the closing ceremony, and someone had gone off on an hour-long nostalgic bender about WWII, and just wouldn't shut the hell up about it and let you watch the damn ceremony, all because he thought his own personal obsession was more important and he wanted to inflict it on everyone, I mean, you'd think that was supremely rude, wouldn't you? That Brokaw scumbag just did that to the whole country. But then, the opening ceremony commentary by his equally smarmy anchor desk replacement, Brian Williams, wasn't that much better. I guess the network decided we should have someone there to spew grim factoids and remind us all about what an ugly and violent place the world is these days. You know, to make it all "relevant", or whatever. So current events in the world are pretty terrible, yes, we all know that. Can't you people just STFU for a bit, just let us have our two weeks of fun escapism, and an imagined world where countries really do meet only on the playing field, not the battlefield? Is that just too freakin' much to ask? Bastards.

Anyway, I don't remember a lot about opening and closing ceremonies prior to '96. I'm actually not sure I watched them before that. That, or the just weren't as memorable. Or I'm getting old and starting to forget things. I do remember the bit from Barcelona (1992) where they lit the torch with a flaming arrow, although I might have just seen that clip on the news, I don't remember exactly. That was fun to watch, although it may have touched off a subsequent arms race in lighting the torch with bigger and weirder stunts. Nobody's topped the flaming arrow yet.

Some selected memories of past Olympics, summer & winter:

Montreal, 1976 The earliest Olympics I remember, and then not very clearly. I remember watching a lot of weightlifting, for some reason. I recall that one of the American competitors was black, and I made some sort of prejudiced remark about him for that reason. My parents were appalled, and wanted to know where I'd gotten those ideas. The correct answer in those days was probably "everywhere", so I'm glad now that I got a serious scolding about it at the time. An important life lesson, learned from the Olympics. Just for that, I probably merit my own human interest story on national TV next time the games roll 'round. Although since it was 1976 I think the actual important life lesson was that it's OK to hate people, just so long as their uniform says "CCCP" on it somewhere.

Lake Placid, 1980 I think I did watch the "Miracle on Ice" game, but I wasn't a hockey fan at the time, so it didn't make that big of an impression on me. No, what I cared about was Eric Heiden in his shiny gold speedskating suit. I had a new idol. I really wanted to be him, wear the gold suit, and skate super-fast. For probably the next year or so, I was convinced you could run faster if you attempted to do that side-to-side speedskating stride, and nobody could convince me otherwise. Sometimes I wonder how things would've turned out if I'd had access to ice skates at the time. But then again, this was around the time I was attempting little league and youth soccer. I was mostly OK at soccer and flat-out awful at baseball, so I wasn't exactly giving people a lot of reasons to think I had a bright athletic future ahead of me.

Los Angeles, 1984 I remember having a nasty cold during part of the Olympics, just like this year. Instead of curling and biathlon, I was curled up in bed watching a bit of cycling and a lot of equestrian stuff. I seem to recall they were playing theme music from the movie St. Elmo's Fire during one of the show jumping events. Ahh, the 80's were a dark and primitive time.

Albertville, 1992 I really miss Olympic demonstration sports. The Albertville Olympics featured a couple of fascinating events: "Ski ballet" (since renamed to the somewhat less goofy "acro"), which was the silliest thing I've ever seen on snow, period. I'm sure it's really hard and all. I've heard synchronized swimming is really hard, too. Just because something's hard doesn't make it a sport, though. And then there was speed skiing, which was about as far away as you can imagine from all the touchy-feely kiss-up-to-the-judges stuff they've been adding in recent years. It's all about top speed in a straight line, period. I don't remember it being that interesting to watch, but it had a certain geekish appeal and a "how do they do that?" quality, sort of like ski jumping. Any winter sport where you need special non-flammable pads so you don't catch on fire when you crash has got to count as reasonably "XTREME" in my book.

Torino, 2006 One thing I've always liked about the Olympics is the way that most of the athletes (various basketball and hockey "Dream Teams" excepted) seem positively giddy to be there. By now it's a familiar sight to see athletes filing into the stadium holding camcorders, taping the whole thing for posterity to show the folks back home. That never stops being endearing. During one of the US women's curling matches, there was a great moment where two US team members (both of whom looked about 17 years old) were puzzling over what shot to try next. There was a brief pause, and then one turned to the other and said in a quiet but excited voice, "We're on TV!". And they both smiled.


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