The best Olympics announcers help you understand what you're watching as you take your quadrennial look-see at sports you ignore the rest of the time. They can turn you into a mini-expert after a couple of broadcasts. NBC and its hench-networks have some good ones.
They also have some bad ones. But let's talk about the good ones for a minute first.
I've watched Greco-Roman wrestling at every Olympics since 1972, without ever coming close to understanding what the hell was going on. Within five minutes of tuning in to the action in Athens, I actually was dangerously close to comprehending a little bit of it, thanks to Russ Hellickson and especially former wrestling champ Jeff Blatnick.
Bill Clement, so good on ESPN hockey broadcasts, has been similarly good on, of all things, badminton and table tennis.
I've already mentioned the great job Teddy Atlas has done on boxing. Former diver Cynthia Potter has done similarly fine work explaining the technical aspects of diving, despite being paired with Ted Robinson, who's always just bugged me. Jon Lugbill overcame the same pairing on whitewater sports.
Dot Richardson did a nice job on softball, though she has kind of a funny way of talking, always referring to players as "athletes," even when a word like "hitter" would seem a lot more natural. She'd say, "She showed bunt to try to bring the athletes in." Athletes? I always thought they were called infielders.
Former high jumper Dwight Stones has been solid on track and field for many years, particularly the jumping events, obviously. I also like Marty Liquori because he talks well about strategy in the longer races, but mostly because he sounds like Al DeRogatis, who did football color on NBC when I was a kid.
The one thing all of these announcers have in common is that they assume the audience is made up of reasonably intelligent people who aren't used to watching the sport in question. The worst don't understand the need to make that assumption, or don't care about it.
And the worst of the worst are Paul Sherwen and Steve Podborski doing track cycling. Sherwen does most of the talking.
Track cycling is one of the most exciting and fascinating sports at the Olympics. It has speed, power, chess-like strategy and spectacular wipeouts, and the individual events don't last very long. It's also completely baffling if you're not familiar with it.
Sherwen and Podborski seem to think their American audience sits on the couch every Sunday watching the ol' track cycling races. A miscalculation to say the least. It should have been a clue to Sherwen that he and his BBC accent had been hired in the first place. He's a former road racer who's well known in Europe but could walk down Fifth Avenue every lunchtime for 10 years without once being recognized.
So as you sit there watching cyclists riding along at 2 mph, eyeballing each other, going way up the bank of the track, then sliding back down to the bottom, obviously playing some kind of cat-and-mouse game, Sherwen will be yammering away: "Jurgensen of course very nearly won a gold at the 2001 European championships but had that last-minute bump with the Spaniard" or whatever.
And you're sitting there going, "WHAT ARE THEY DOING?!?!? WHAT ARE THE FREAKIN' RULES HERE???
I watched an eight-lap event called Keirin Wednesday. Before the first heat starts Sherwen and Podborski were blathering on about how some guy won gold in Atlanta and then went to road racing yadda yadda and then this guy on a moped rode up out of nowhere -- a moped! -- and the bikes took off after him. The moped guy was wearing all black clothes and deck shoes. He looked like an interloper, but nobody looked worried.
The bicycle racers were obviously following moped boy around, at his pace, which was not a sprinting pace. Sherwen and Podborski continued to chatter on about the road race guy. "He's lost quite a bit of weight since his days on the boards." The laps-to-go counter clicked down: 8, 7, 6.
DUDE, THERE'S A MOPED ON THE TRACK! WHAT THE %&@#&%! IS GOING ON???
Finally, on the third or fourth lap, Sherwen explained that the moped sets the pace for five and a half laps, then pulls off, but he didn't say why this practice exists, or what any of the strategy that was obviously going on behind the moped was all about.
Special Emmy to Sherwen and Podborski. And please don't write to explain the rules of Keirin, team pursuit or any other track race. I'm a smart guy and can look these things up. But I shouldn't have to while I'm watching them for the first and only time in four years, and neither should you. I'm guessing you don't watch the Olympics the way I do, with a laptop on your lap.
But no discussion of bad Olympic announcing is complete without the words "Al" and "Trautwig."
In the women's triathlon Wednesday, as Kate Allen of Austria came from two minutes back to run down Loretta Harrop of Australia in the last few strides for the gold, a shocking achievement, Trautwig had this to say: "Here's how this went. The Australian was on vacation in Europe, fell in love with an Austrian man. They went to the pool, and this was born. And now it turns out to be a gold medal for Kate Allen and Austria."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
It's gotta be the shoes [PERMALINK]
In the best moments of Wednesday's Olympics, people kept taking off their shoes.
American wrestler Rulon Gardner, one of the best stories of the 2000 Olympics when he pulled off a titanic upset over unbeaten Russian Alexander Karelin, had to settle for a bronze-medal match after being upset himself by Georgi Tsurtsumia of Kazakhstan in a semifinal.
That match came later in the day, and Gardner wore down Sajad Barzi of Iran for the win in overtime and the bronze. Then he retired, which he signified by sitting down in the center of the mat with an American flag in his lap, removing his shoes and leaving them there, a touching wrestling tradition.
Gardner has proved himself to be one of the more likable American Olympians of recent years, a big-boned boy from Wyoming with a wild streak -- snowmobile and motorcycle accidents have cost him a toe and very nearly his life since Sydney -- who looks like Uncle Fester and has a nice sense of humor. He was supposed to win the gold, but it was hard to think of him as a loser as he walked off the mat in his socks, wrapped in the flag and crying.
On the track, Fani Halkia of Greece won the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles in front of a delirious home crowd. Halkia hadn't been a favorite at all, but she flew through these Olympics, then roared down the stretch in the final all alone, bathed in the cheers of a packed house.
She immediately stopped and took her shoes off before embarking on a victory lap barefoot. No idea why.
Never mind the not-subtle hints by competitors that Halkia's rapid improvement this season has been chemically aided -- American Brenda Taylor, who finished seventh in the final, was asked if she was surprised by Halkia's progress and said, "Can I take the fifth on that question?" -- it was a great moment.
A better one came during the medals ceremony. The Greeks have won six golds at their home Olympics. I wish they'd won more, especially in track and field. The spectacle of 70,000 people singing along to that great anthem is one I could sit through quite a few times.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
More sartorial news [PERMALINK]
You know you're looking at a baseball team from a poor country when they're wearing one-size-fits-all adjustable caps in the Olympics, like a beer-league softball team. That's what the Cubans, who won the gold, were wearing. They also had logo-free batting helmets. Just solid red, without the white script "C."
I wonder if we'll see some of the design elements of silver-winning Australia's uniforms in major league baseball in the coming years. The Aussies had vest-style jerseys, which are common in the U.S., and in fact they had the fake-vest look sported so badly by the Angels until a few years ago: The jerseys had full sleeves, but were designed to look like a white or gray vest with a green undershirt. Yuck.
But Australia also had stars on one sleeve, and on the right hip pocket, and little patches of color. There was a vertical yellow rectangle atop a horizontal shiny silver rectangle just below the collar in front, and another, longer vertical yellow rectangle under the collar in back. And then there was another patch of yellow under each underarm, which looked a little like a stylized sweat stain.
The pants had a green stripe that tapered from wide at the hip to narrow at the calf and stopped several inches above the hem for players who wore them long like most big leaguers do.
They were interesting suits. I can't say I liked 'em a lot, but I'm a little fussy about my baseball uniform tastes. I like a classic look. But Australia's attempts at modernizing the baseball uniform were more creative and less ugly than similar attempts by most major league teams, which since the atrocities of the '70s have mostly involved colored jerseys and black or gray hats.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
And this is just in my house. Watching 70 hours of TV a day is killing me.
I seem to have run up against the classic couch potato's Catch-22: The soft chair hurts my back and the hard chair hurts my ass.
Usually the medals count is obsessively followed by the American media, but in these Games it's rarely being mentioned. Maybe that's because it's not the battle it once was. The U.S. had 76 medals at posting time, well ahead of Russia's 54. But on the other hand the U.S. lead in gold was only 25-24 over China.
And while we're usually treated to story after story about the Olympic Village, I don't think I've even seen a picture of the Athens village, I presume because of security concerns. Took me 13 days to notice, so I guess I haven't missed it.
Previous column: Gymnastic exhibition: Yeesh
- - - - - - - - - - - -