Monday, August 18, 2008

Why we watch

I’m going to change things up tonight. Instead of my typical post in which I discuss the Olympics I am going to discuss why we are all discussing the Olympics. This isn’t an insignificant point. On three straight nights I was in a bar last week in which people were crowded around a television set cheering people swimming. That is unusual enough to warrant some deep analysis.

First off, NBC bet the farm on this being the Michael Phelps show and it paid off. They made it so that the swimming finals would be live in the States and fed us the story about how important it is and people bought into the story. Early on you had the come from behind win on the relay that really caught people’s attention. Then you had the dominance in the middle which allowed people to think of 8 golds as a possibility. Tag on a miracle win and the last race was something you just had to see. It is an amazing accomplishment, especially given the talent level in swimming. I won’t call it the greatest athletic accomplishment ever but it was definitely noteworthy.

But given the high ratings for the opening ceremonies there is something beyond Michael Phelps at play here. One idea that I have read states that the interest in the Olympics is due to a really crappy television season. Thanks to the writer’s strike we’ve been dealing with reality show overload and even that month and a half when the real shows were back they weren’t firing on all cylinders. The Olympics have been the biggest television event in probably nine months just due to the fact that it is new programming.

There is also a level of patriotism at play here. With the games in China part of the reason you watch is because China is such a strange place. You don’t quite understand what is going on over there but you know that it is important. There is also a degree of cheering for the U.S. over China that I haven’t seen since the glory days of the Cold War Olympics. Look at gymnastics, which has been sold as a U.S. versus China battle. Or the focus on the medal count, which is playing a bigger role than in the past. This is very interesting to see given that I felt that we had moved into a post-patriotism age.

I’m still not sure if this explains all of it. I’ve been trying to think of an Olympics that has garnered as much attention as this one. The only two that I can think of are 1994 (Tonya and Nancy) and 1984 (the L.A. games where the US won every medal and we all got to eat for free at McDonald’s for a month as a result). So what has caught our attention this time? Why the hell are we caring about rowing results? Since when has water polo become part of the national interest?

Honestly I just think the nation is collectively burnt out and we need a two week break from reality. The economy is horrible, the housing market has collapsed and the dollar is incredibly weak. We have more troops in combat than we had ever imagined possible and we can’t see where the end point is. There are three months of political ads in front of us after a primary race that would not end. We all just want to have one big collective sigh.

That is what the Olympics are for the US at the moment. We are all collapsing on the couch and watching our countrymen win and set records and perform amazing feats. We’ve forgotten that such a thing is possible. The past few years have been so dark and cynical that we can’t imagine us winning again. For a moment we are all smiling again. That is what makes sports so important in the world. It is one of the few unifying aspects of life.

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