Is Olympic Fever Anything Like Bird Flu?

The XXII Winter Olympiad started today in some third world country.  The lodging, which by most accounts has all the appeal of a fart in an elevator, was constructed with no less graft than a Jersey public works project. But that’s a rant for another day.

As a kid, I recall thinking that the Olympics were a big deal.  The truth of the matter is that back then, it really was. Now it’s become just another big-ticket, over-hyped, corporatized and politicized exhibition of extravagance. It’s an outdoor version of the Oscars.

Admittedly, there are a few events that are compelling (hint – figure skating is not one of them). But the modern day Olympic athlete is a professional.  Even those that aren’t literal professionals, like men’s hockey players, are making all sorts of money from sponsorships and multimedia sexploitation. Yeah, I’m looking at you Lindsey Vonn.

I long for the days when “miracle on ice” referred to more than Robert Downey, Jr.’s favorite cocktail.  You can keep your Sidney Crosbys and Brett Hulls. I’ll take Mark Johnson, Neal Broten and real Olympic hockey.

Nobody remembers how good a skier Alberto Tomba was. But because of the media’s incessant reference to his playboy lifestyle, everyone knows he was a ladies’ man. If Alberto Tomba had a gold tooth and more humility, he’d be Deion Sanders.

You can keep Alberto Tomba. I’ll take the grainy “live via satellite” footage of a reckless Franz Klammer careening down the mountain in Innsbruck to a cacophony of his countrymen wielding cowbells. That guy went downhill faster than a dotcom stock.

But the problem lies not just with the athletes. There are also the foolish events contrived by the governing bodies. There are some feats performed by people with things appurtenant to their bodies that truly leave me in awe. But as much as I might be impressed by them, they are no more worthy of the moniker “sport” than if we saw them on YouTube or Tosh.O.

You can keep your snowboarding, halfpipe, and slopestyle skiing. I’ll stick with the luge and bobsled, thank you very much.

Then there are those pieces narrated by a non sportscaster on loan from the network morning show, prattling on ad naseum about how lucky we are to have a window into the athlete’s private world.  These emblems of the new Olympics are also symptomatic of the insidious movement to turn everything transmitted over the airways into some pre-fabricated drama. The Olympics are now the progeny of the same formulaic recipe that gives us “reality TV.”

If you choose to be so much a voyeur that you need to see segments about the lives of famous people, turn on Entertainment Tonight or whatever show the Kardashian’s are doing. But, if you’re one of those who tunes in to the Olympics to see the sports, not the competitors’ home videos of themselves frolicking with their canine, raise your hand, cuz I got a beer in the fridge and a spot on my couch for you.

The only thing that makes me reach for the clicker faster than the “up close and personals” are the obligatory smattering of chum that introduces us to the quirky local customs of the host city. As good a raconteur as Harry Smith or Mary Carillo may be, I don’t care to see them wax philosophic about things that are more suitable for the Travel Channel. I want to see some guy careen down a luge run on a primitive sled without brakes.

You can keep your “up close and personals.” I’ll take an extra 10 minutes of ski jumping every hour – my eyes affixed to the screen as some Finnish guy defies gravity for what seems like a quarter minute.  You want reality TV? This guy doesn’t get a second take.  He has a split second to calculate the precise moment he has eked out as much distance as will allow him to land upright some 200 meters from whence he started.

Even when the networks manage to interrupt this fortnight of fluff with some real sports, the presentation is something out of MTV. Call me old fashioned, old school, or just old, but when it comes to sports, I need only know (a) who’s playing, and (b) the score. I don’t need a dizzying array of colors and graphics, action shot from creative camera angles, or a crawl at the bottom of the screen.  

You can keep your special effects generators, and Chyron machines. Tucked into the back of my mind I’ll harbor an unshaven Jim Craig, draped in a flag, searching for his father amid the crowd.

While we’re at it, you can keep your short track speed skating, your moguls competition, your $25,000 figure skating outfits and your swoosh-emblazoned team jerseys. Keep your Olympic pin swapping, restaurant-hopping man on the street. Keep your stories of troubled childhoods, unrequited love, comebacks from injury, and the symbolism of gold-colored equipment. Don’t forget to take your music video montage of triumph and disappointment – if you leave it with me it will end up in a closet with my juicer and bread maker.  And whatever you do, please take that guy who every Olympiad gets his fifteen minutes of fame.

I’ll take Eric Heiden…and place him in pantheon of my mind where he’ll preside as the greatest Winter Olympian in history. He got famous the old fashioned way – by being the first guy across the finish line every time he laced ‘em up. 

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