Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Olympics, Beach Volleyball, and The New Yorker

There are a couple pieces on the Olympics in Beijing in the latest issue of The New Yorker. And I think we've established at this point that I'm a bit obsessed when it comes to the Olympics so it shouldn't be surprising that I feel the need to write about them.

Nancy Franklin's piece on the TV coverage of the games is kind of a waste of space. I like critics to provide some sort of insight that I can't come up with on my own while sitting on the couch drinking cocktails in my underwear, thank you. For the most part I even agree with her comments, but the fact that NBC's coverage is obnoxious? I'd kind of figured that out and so have a lot of other people. My annoyance really began though, when I got to this part:
In the four years since I was last forced to watch beach volleyball, I somehow have not found the maturity and wisdom to take it seriously as an Olympic sport, and, frankly, I doubt that NBC takes it seriously, either, except as a ratings grabber. Every time I turned on the TV, there was May-Treanor (the short one) and Walsh (the tall one), in those silly little Victoria’s Ill-Kept Secret outfits.
If I never hear anything else about the beach volleyball bikinis it will be too soon. It's just an easy shot to take. Beyond that though, I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, I think it's sad to not take the sport seriously, particularly when it seems to be because of the outfits. As unexciting as I've found the competition this year I think that the athleticism, skill, and hard work that go into the game are evident and itty-bitty clothing shouldn't distract from that. Second, I really don't have any problem with said bikinis. Do they lead many viewers to objectify the players? I'm sure it does. But let's be honest for just a moment here and acknowledge that desire in various forms and objectification are a big part of sports viewership. And I don't really have a problem with that. Beach volleyball makes those aspects of viewership more explicit than most sports, true, but it's hardly creating something that didn't already exist. (I've also been spending enough time staring at incredibly fit male athletes that it would be completely hypocritical of me to judge someone for watching beach volleyball in order to see women running around in little pieces of fabric.)

There are all kinds of problems in the way some of the commentators, and NBC in general, cover the female athletes. Franklin does point some of those out in the article. I just wish people--not just Franklin--didn't seem to lump the clothing in with those issues. Yes, it's skimpy, yes it attracts viewers, no it's not that different from what most women where on the beach. Whatever. NBC showed a race today in which one of the women was covered from wrist to foot and wearing a head covering, as her religion demands. It's a hell of a lot more troubling then women in bikinis but I bet I read far fewer people complaining about it.

Anthony Lane's commentary on the first week of the Olympics, while not great, was far more interesting. He tells us things that we don't actually see on TV--half-time entertainment at a water polo match for example or the security measures attendees deal with--and sums up the failure of the NBC coverage eloquently.
Most people will stay home and watch the events on TV, having no other option, but be warned: what NBC chooses to broadcast is not the Olympic Games. They offer selected clips of selected American athletes, largely in major sports, sometimes hours after the event, whereas, if the bruised Olympic ideal still means anything, it means loosing yourself, for a couple of weeks, from the bonds of your immediate loyalties and tastes. It means watching live sports you didn’t know you were interested in, played by countries you’ve never been to, at three o’clock in the morning—not just watching them, either, but getting into them, deluding yourself that you grasp the rules, offering the fruits of your instant expertise to anyone who will listen (“I think you’ll find the second waza-ari counts as ippon”), and, most bewildering of all, losing your heart.
NBC hasn't given us any options. They haven't allowed us to lose our hearts but instead have tried to convince us that we should fall in love with people like Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers. Well I'm sorry, but I simply don't love them. They're arrogant overdogs and I refuse to care about them. But NBC doesn't seem to want to show me people I could fall in love with--even if I did enjoy Yang Wei pretending the pommel horse was an actual horse at the gymnastics gala--and that's a shame.

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