Yep, it’s finally here! Friday, August 5. The date that marks the start of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the chance for me to talk a bit and even gripe a bit about the Olympics as a whole. The opening ceremony is airing on NBC as I write this, and since it’s NBC, the broadcast is, despite a Rio-to-Wisconsin time difference of only two hours, “plausibly live.” That means that NBC is stretching the event out so that they can add what they call “context.” But that’s the pits, though: I’ve seen 3 commercial breaks in the actual ceremony’s first 20 minutes, so it’s probably less about context and more about squeezing in advertising to pay the bills, not to mention editing out a segment or two, which NBC has been prone to doing in the past. Dare I say it, all that editing and omitting of events really takes the fun out of watching the opening ceremony. Which is a shame, really, since most Olympic opening ceremonies are beautiful in their own ways (the ceremony for the Beijing games 8 years ago was an absolute marvel).
That’s the thing about every single Olympic Games, whether it be winter or summer: There are things about the Olympics that you love, look forward to, and can never get enough of. And there are things about them that really turn you off about them. Most of this give-and-take is about the television broadcasts, at least here in the United States. As noted above, for every marvelous scene about an opening or closing ceremony, there’s the wish that you could’ve seen what NBC edited out. For every person who can’t stand NBC’s coverage, there’s someone living near the Canadian border who can pick up coverage that’s usually more thorough. And outside of television, of course, for every citizen of the host city or host country who’s very welcoming toward the games, there’s at least one who wish they had never come to their land. Brazil and Rio are no exception to that this year, if you’ve been paying attention to the news.
But wherever you live and whichever network you watch, there’s no escaping the fact that the Olympics are big. Er, excuse me… BIG! The argument can be made that it’s been that way since at least the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, an event held in a country ruled under the iron fist of one of the most evil men ever to walk the earth. Since the whole world knows how evil he was, I won’t even dignify him by mentioning or linking to his name. But thanks to him and his desire to outdo the previous games (and to prove other more unfortunate beliefs), the Berlin Olympics set the benchmark for Olympic largess. I watched a PBS documentary on those games earlier this week, and it really laid out the case for how and why the Olympics became so big today because of Berlin (the Olympic leadership of the day were really painted in an unflattering light).
But big the Olympics have become. Whether that’s a good thing or not is naturally in the eye of the beholder, although there’s something about the size and importance of the Olympics that has made them enduring to the four corners of the earth. Even if you’ve never been to an Olympic event, you can tell how big it is by watching the games at home. Even as a 7 year old, the first time I remember watching the Olympics, I got the impression that they were important. There was the theme music (“BOOM! Boom! Buh-BOOM! Boom!”). There was the authoritative yet reassuring presence of Jim McKay (yep, I’m old enough to remember him leading ABC’s coverage). There was, and is still today, the serious pageantry of the opening ceremony, up to and including the lighting of the cauldron (“FIRE! FIRE!!!”). It all made me think that it must be one’s civic duty as a citizen of Earth to watch the Olympics. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but to a 7 year old, it sure seemed as if it was mandatory to watch.
And, of course, there are the sports. Sure, there are the familiar sports like basketball and soccer, swimming and track. But the nice thing about the Olympics is that they always leave lots of room for the unheralded sports. You know the type of sports I’m talking about, where someone who works at, say, Home Depot and isn’t making large coin through a pro contract or endorsement deal puts all their heart and soul into training and preparation for that one shining moment (whoops, wrong sporting event) when they become a gold medalist (or at least silver or bronze) in the sport they love so dearly and that you never knew existed.
I’ll go ahead and throw one such unfamiliar sport (to we Americans, at least) that you should watch at these Olympics if you can find it on your TV dial: Handball. No, not the sport where two players throw a ball at a wall at the athletic club. I’m talking the good old team sport of handball, where two teams of seven players run up and down a court larger than a basketball court and shoot at a goal area protected by a goalie. Think of handball as the marriage of basketball and soccer. I vividly recall Lester Holt, when he was serving as a studio host for the 2004 Olympics on cable, talking about how exciting handball is and why it’s a shame it’s never caught on in America, just before he threw it to the men’s handball gold medal match in progress. And he was right: Handball is exciting, and that close match, which was decided by a 2-goal margin, proved it.
Whatever sport or sports you plan on watching during the Olympics, know this: You probably won’t watch all of them. Heck, it’s quite impossible to watch all of them, unless you have a DVR and 17 days to spare. And if you do have 17 days to spare… well, your employer must be generous in giving you vacation time. But, indeed, Olympic sports and the platforms on which to watch them are so numerous here in 2016. What I usually do is watch most of what interests me, but leave a little bit of time to sample the rest should it pique my interest. What I also do is try to watch with a passive interest. Sure, rooting for your country’s athletes is all well and good, but know that they are competing, as the Olympic Oath states, “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” Yeah, competing in an honorable and dignified fashion can sometimes outweigh getting gold, silver, or bronze.
So if you’re watching at least a little bit of these Olympic games, have fun. If you happen to be reading this from Rio, have fun down there as well (and stay safe). If you have any sort of rooting interest, go ahead and root away. Oh, and if you know of someone who has a TV antenna strong enough, or a cable hookup long enough, to pick up CBC Television from Canada, let me know. Watching the Olympics live sure beats “plausibly live” any old fortnight.