The best way to watch the Winter Olympics, I discovered while out for a walk one evening, is through someone else’s living-room window. That way you avoid the inane commentary, and if you time it right you can catch five minutes of action before the floodgates open for commercials. A block from my building I found the perfect Olympic theater: a first-floor apartment with a picture window and a massive, wide-screen TV. On that High Definition console, the speed-skating rink became a shimmering lake of icy blues and synthetic crimsons, across which androgynous Lycra-clad figures powered their way. And when I turned my head toward a second-floor apartment on the other side of the street, I saw wispy aerialists twist and turn in the air like Keith Haring figures transported to a snowy landscape.
It felt right to watch the Olympics like this, at a distance of about 30 feet, with a big pane of glass between me and the TV and the scent of leaves and fresh air in my nostrils. But eventually, I had to move on, fearful of looking like a peeping Tom. Imagine being arrested for watching Bob Costas through someone else’s window. Spying on speed skaters! Ogling ice dancers as they frolicked innocently in a stranger’s living room! Sadly, I trudged back to my apartment and turned on my ordinary old TV.
Costas was seated in front of a fireplace, talking to wrinkled gray eminence Jim McKay. McKay had just delivered himself of an achingly pat “Wise Old Man” speech on the significance of this year’s games, and I felt sorry for him. The speech was probably written by a 22-year-old. “You know, Jim,” Costas said, picking up on a dubious line in McKay’s homily, “they’ve talked about these games as the healing games, but I think you’re right, September 11th has only been a subtext. There hasn’t been anything heavy-handed about it.”
Bob big boy
No, I thought to myself, just the bit where they brought the flag from the World Trade Center into the stadium during the opening ceremonies. Or the part where President Bush broke Olympic protocol by opening the games “on behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation” while seated among athletes from his own country. But I didn’t really care about that. All countries are jingoistic, given the opportunity, and we just happen to be rich in opportunity. What I wanted to know was: Who on Earth was talking about “the healing games”? This was a conversation I’d missed out on.
“Have you been watching the Healing Games?”
“Oh yes, every night.”
“So you feel better now?”
“Much better. And you?”
“Completely recovered. I found the luge particularly soothing.”
“I’m so glad to hear it. It was the moguls that did it
“Well, goodbye then.”
Bakken and Flowers
Elsewhere, the healing process was taking longer to set in. Over at Fox, the inimitable Bill O’Reilly was still fuming over the pairs figure-skating scandal and calling for the arrest of Marie-Reine le Gougne, the French figure-skating judge alleged to have been pressured into voting for the Russians over the Canadians. (This was before le Gougne claimed it was the Canadians she had been pressured to vote for.) “The Salt Lake City cops should put her in cuffs!” O’Reilly barked at sportswriter John Feinstein, who looked startled. “Well, what’s the charge?” Feinstein asked.
Hmmm, I thought to myself, that’s easy: being French, looking sophisticated, and knowing something about ballet. That should get her 20 years right there. My God, she looks like the host of an Arts program. What’s she doing at the Olympics? This is a sporting event, dammit!
A le Gougne look-alike popped up in the audience on David Letterman’s show, and was asked to stand up and take a bow. The strange thing was, from a distance she really did look like le Gougne and had a distinctly snooty air. But she was soon forgotten as Dave got down to the enjoyable business of poking fun at the “commercials-to-content ratio” of NBC’s Olympic coverage. “I know it cost them about a billion dollars, but come on!” Dave moaned. “You need something to get your nose open.”
Whatever that meant. If it’s all too easy to make fun of the Olympics, NBC has only itself to blame. All the network needs to do is show the damn things — i.e., turn on a camera, point it toward an event, and then broadcast the resulting footage — but Costas & Co. are incapable of anything so straightforward. They don’t like to show things so much as talk about showing them. Everything has to be given a hook, a moral, a “story.” Nothing is allowed to go unmediated. In most countries, you can see the Olympics pretty much as they unfold, but here all you get is highlights, commercials, and crashing bores waxing philosophical beside a fire.
The peak of insanity — for me, anyway — was reached on the night Costas announced they would be showing highlights from the previous night’s footage of the short program in ladies’ figure skating. Ladies’ figure skating is by far the most popular event in the Olympics, but even so, the previous night’s coverage had been minimal (during one half-hour period, they managed to show four minutes of actual skating), and I gawked at the TV in astonishment. “Wait a minute,” I muttered incredulously. “You only showed highlights of the figure skating last night. Now you’re going to show highlights of the highlights?” But by this stage in the competition — it was four days before the end — NBC had obviously decided to limit coverage to events in which American athletes were dominant. The rage for gold medals and ratings-bull’s-eye “stories” had reached its apogee.
You could see this process at work in its most brutal form in the saga of the two female bobsledders Jean Racine and Gea Johnson, who made headlines after “Mean Jean” Racine dumped her former partner Jen Davidson in favor of the speedier Johnson. A week earlier, Racine and Johnson had been guests on The Tonight Show, an honor few Olympians are accorded before they’ve actually won something. But this pair had already been granted star status. Dressed in T-shirts and tight jeans, they exuded girl-power confidence and a raunchy, kick-ass sexuality. Johnson, a big Arizonan blond with arms that looked like they’d been borrowed from a passing truck driver, pledged that after — or rather, she corrected herself, if — they won the gold medal, she’d come back on the show and lift Leno over her head. (“I can lift people, Jay,” she explained.) Leno was game. “There are guys in this town who’d pay good money for that,” he quipped.
But the Racine-Johnson story effectively ended three days before the competition, when Johnson pulled a hamstring. They competed, but were never in serious contention. Fortunately for NBC, the other U.S. team won. Even more fortunately, one of the women on this previously overlooked team was an African-American — and now the first African-American ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Games. (In fact, she was the first black person to win a gold medal at the games, but the wider significance of this was lost on our reporters, many of whom seem to think that all black people everywhere are African-American.)
It was a nice story, but what was stunning was the speed with which NBC fastened on to it. A quick shot of Racine and Johnson in tears, and that was it: They were now officially yesterday’s news, along with all the foreigners who’d taken part in the race. Before, women’s bobsled had been solely about Racine and Johnson; now it was about Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers, and everyone else could get out of the way. At the medals ceremony, the Americans basked in the raucous applause of the fist-pumping crowd while Germany’s bronze- and silver-medalists looked on politely, ignored.