Monday, August 11, 2008
(Okay, I give up. The NBC Nazis have scarfed up every video even slightly related.)
This was just unbelievably great. I'll say what our swimmers didn't:"Yippee-ki-yay."
IT'S THE MESSAGE, NOT THE MESSENGER. I have to acknowledge that so far, these Olympic Games are fascinating despite the predictably poor execution by NBC. The venue and the performances are powerful enough to override the already countless bad timing, editing, and content decisions of the network that's making a billion dollars in advertising revenue for the peacock bunch.
As I write this, the USA Women's Basketball Team has just crushed China in a game that was essentially over late in the first quarter. But even more impressive than their dominating performance was the grace of the American players in post-game interviews. They refuse to crow or be anything less than complimentary to their opponents and humble about their own exploits. The Men's team behaved with exactly the same degree of graciousness after their similarly overwhelming victory yesterday against the host team led by Yao Ming. Ditto the miraculously triumphant USA relay team that stunned their trash-talking French rivals in the 4x100 freestyle final last night. There seems to be an American team spirit at work which is exquisitely poised between a ferocious desire to win and a becoming awareness of their responsibility to be the best possible ambassadors for their country. I hope this spirit continues to be exemplified by our athletes throughout the games, and I have no reason whatever to think it won't be.
I'm equally impressed by the Chinese, issues of authoritarian politics aside. I didn't watch the opening ceremonies because I'm not that fond of pure pageantry, particularly when it's staged by said authoritarian regimes. The architecture of the Olympic facilities, though, is a different matter. It reflects the creative vision of a people, not just its government. The Bird's Nest amphitheatre and the Water Cube strike me as masterful designs which convey hopeful intimations about a society in transition. The naturalistic inspiration and asymmetry of the Bird's Nest suggest that China -- despite the horrors of the Cultural Revolution -- has reestablished a fertile connection with its own artistic and philosophical roots. The Water Cube is an incredibly modern expression of the allusive minimalism of dynastic Chinese painting combined with an appreciation of western enlightenment conceptions about the esthetic properties of mathematics. It integrates Le Corbusier into the ancient Asian communion with the symbolic elements, rigidly foursquare and yet as infinitely variable as the waveform reflections of its surface which play across the goggles of every swimmer filmed in the cube by a high-def TV camera. There's something at work under the shifting surface of China that transcends Mao, Stalin, and the self-parodying monumentality of Hitler's 1936 Nazi Olympics.
The Chinese audiences are an equally tantalizing spectacle. They are devoted to their teams and they sing their national anthem with the fervor of a people long trained to idolize the state itself. Yet they are also comfortable idolizing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, happy to wear their Lakers' jerseys to their own nation's coming out party as the world's fastest growing industrial and economic power. It may seem a completely trivial observation to point out that the Chinese Women's Basketball Team was less uniform in its uniforms than the USA Team, but is it trivial? The Chinese Women displayed a decidedly individualistic choice of footwear -- some red, some white, by manufacturers various. Compared to them it was the Americans who looked like a purely homogeneous unit.
There were other signs of Chinese individuality on display in NBC's most execrable event coverage yet -- the truly shameful treatment of women's gymnastics inflicted on the network's prime-time audience last night. I'm not even talking about the commercial breaks every five minutes. I'm talking about the destruction of gymnastics as a sporting event in favor of presenting and editing it as a soap opera plot involving only the Chinese and the Americans. (No, I'm not forgetting the insulting cameo scene displaying the collapse of Romania as a world class gymnastics power. Was that, or was it not, a deliberate object lesson in the supremacy of collectivist virtues over the undisciplined consumerist individualism of the post-communist state? I'm not suggesting you should hear it too, but as I watched the sullenly incompetent beam performance of the one Romanian gymnast shown, I couldn't keep from hearing Michelle Obama's voice saying, "Barack will demand more of you.") And, interestingly, this new world-class rivalry was not cast in terms of entrepreneurial American aspiration versus oppressive authoritarian organization. The only grim exercise facility shown via film was the Romanian-run headquarters of the American team, complete with footage of a starkly empty practice hall lit to look a torture chamber and a gated entrance evocative of the arching "Arbeit Macht Frei" signs crowning the portals of concentration camps.
I'm sure it wasn't intentional. But when the announcers referenced the ongoing controversy about IOC suspicions that China is defying the 16-year-old age requirement with competitors as young as twelve, they also seemed at pains to point out that all of us adults can't even trust our own perceptions about who is old enough to be on an American college campus. And while both teams experienced some major mistakes and setbacks, they made it clear that it was the Americans who were most stricken by their failures -- inconsolable even by the public embrace of their Rosa Kleb-like Romanian coach. The sole competitor on either team who was able to smile after an embarrassing lapse was one of the putative 12-year-old Chinese girls who, we were informed, was regarded by her coaches as supremely talented but "not the hardest worker on the team."
Well, I'm gad of this evidence that a Chinese athlete who screws up isn't looking at a lifetime in some gulag. But I was unnerved by the implied representation of the defending champion USA Women's Gymnastics Team -- with its transplanted Russian anchor, the unsmiling Nastia Liukin, and its red and white uniforms designed around a red star -- as the suddenly besieged heirs of the Soviet gymnastics tradition. Their ascendant rivals were the impressionistically attired members of the exuberant young Chinese team, who -- an inserted documentary piece admiringly informed us -- were the comfortable inheritors of a thousand-year-old Chinese acrobatic tradition which conscripts its 'artists' at the age of three.
(Wrong ideas. Yes. I have them all the time. But please explain why NBC subsequently inserted two meaningless segments -- in pure sporting terms, that is -- about a former Soviet gymnast now competing for Germany because her son's life was saved by that nation's socialized healthcare system AND the performance of a single Russian gymnast resplendent in a glittering rainbow uniform meant to show us the spontaneous rebirth of Russian gymnastics after the post-Soviet democratic decline. (Thank God for Putin?) Just human interest. I know. But is this really a sport anymore? Or it some kind of NBC cultural barometer? If the former, where the hell were all the other teams and their performers?)
It can't be the case that producers and film editors at NBC are subconsciously in love with the cultural paradigm of the New China -- gigantic, omnipotent government presiding over a rising tide of prosperity and a smilingly unified citizenry purchased at the acceptable price of severely limited freedom of speech, religion, and other anti-collectivist political rights.
Of course not. Otherwise, Bob Costas wouldn't have hunted down President George W. Bush and quizzed him about why he was attending the games and what possible impact his public (and private) objections to Chinese authoritarianism could possibly effect. And Costas wouldn't have continued to interrogate the President of the United States about Russian aggression in Georgia and the corruption of U.S. athletics via steroids and EPO until Mr. Bush asked how much longer he was going to be imprisoned in the studio before being allowed to return to the games.
Which returns me to my first point. These games are fascinating. Even the dumbest coverage can't quite conceal the joyful vitality of our nation in this global arena. There was our President, sitting in the stands -- not some lofty box -- to watch the USA Men's Basketball Team win a great victory. There he was again, after the Costas interview, sitting in shirtsleeves at the Water Cube cheering on the Team USA swimmers. He must have seen the stupendous relay victory, though no NBC camera recorded his reaction to the greatest moment yet in these Olympics. And he also had an endearingly awkward moment with the USA Women's Beach Volleyball Team, when he was invited to give an encouraging NFL-type bottom pat to the competitors and couldn't bring himself to do it.
What other possible kind of evidence could you ask for that our elected Commander-in-Chief is, in the most important possible sense, just one of us? A guy who is restrained by his values -- and an entirely legitimate concern about what his wife would say -- from doing what every single male fan of women's beach volleyball in the world would give his eye teeth to do represents the incontrovertible proof that we are still, despite the many disappointing exceptions and lapses, a nation led by basically humble citizen politicians who haven't forgotten where they came from and where they are going home to when the klieg lights are switched off.
Yes, I'm liking the Olympics a lot more than NBC's coverage of them. I can't wait to see what happens next.
P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.