Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't gold

The two American gymnasts were bit players in the men's all-around finals. But NBC treated them like Hamlet.

Published August 14, 2008 8:17PM (EDT)

Reuters/Hans Deryk

U.S. gymnasts Jonathan Horton, left, and Sasha Artemev in Beijing.

I realized something was a little odd about NBC's coverage of the men's gymnastics individual all-around finals around midnight. There were 24 athletes in the competition, but NBC had been focusing on six: the favorite, China's Yang Wei; Americans Jonathan Horton and Sasha Artemev; Japanese Kohei Uchimura and Hiroyuki Tomita; and Korean Yang Tae-young. The lion's share of airtime went to the Americans and Yang Wei. We got occasional peeps at the Korean and the two Japanese, mostly when they screwed up. One Russian gymnast, Sergey Khorokhordin, also made it onto the screen for a minute or two. As far as I can remember, those were the only gymnasts NBC showed us.

Then, halfway through the six-routine event, one of the announcers informed us that some guy named Benoit Caranobe from France was in third place.

What was odd was that we hadn't even seen Caranobe yet. And the last time I checked, they give out three medals at the Olympics.

Eventually, we did get to see Caranobe, albeit very briefly. And it was a good thing, because he ended up winning the bronze. But we pretty much had to imagine his performance.

The same thing happened during the men's team finals. The coverage was all about the U.S. and China. The Japanese team, the defending champion that ended up winning the silver medal, barely made it onto the screen.

I know, this is inevitable. It simply isn't possible for TV to show the entire gymnastics competition. As it was, it finished at 1:30 a.m. PST -- are they really going to tack an additional hour or two? The nature of the event also makes it tough. All the events happen at the same time: When one gymnast is performing on the rings, another is on the horse, another on the parallel bars, and so on. Unless you're there, you don't realize that it is literally a six-ring circus. In person, it takes a little getting used to -- you have to keep a scorecard, keep track of what everyone's doing and not get distracted by routines performed by gymnasts who have no chance. In the case of Caranobe, he was the darkest of dark horses, and no one expected him to get anywhere near the podium. (He certainly didn't seem to: When he found out he'd medaled, he collapsed in sobs.) By editing out all those routines, and all those also-ran gymnasts, TV is able to cut to the chase, make the matchups clearer, tell a more dramatic story.

And I also accept that American TV is going to focus disproportionately on American athletes. They're the ones we know, and we're more interested in them. If TV showed us as much of the Romanian and German gymnasts as they did of the Americans, its viewership would plummet. I wanted to see Horton and Artemev, because I knew their stories a little, knew what they had done in the team final and wanted to see how they'd do on their own.

And yes, tribal solidarity is part of it: At an Olympics, you end up rooting for your countrymen and women, and you don't feel bad about it. It's about the most benign form of nationalism imaginable. And I say that as someone who can't stand quasi-official patriotism, like the tiresome singing of "God Bless America" that invaded the seventh innings of Major League Baseball after 9/11. (If I want to invoke the blessings of a nonexistent deity on my country, I'll do it on my own time, thank you very much.) But unless a U.S. athlete is a world-class jerk, or I'm deeply invested in a foreign athlete for some reason, I'll root, root, root for the home team.

So I understand the reasoning behind TV's coverage. The producers are trying to create a compelling narrative out of big and unruly events, they have to highlight Americans, and they have limited time. Those are major constraints, and I don't know if there's an alternative to the way TV handles the games, aside from creating a sports-junkie channel that films the routines of every single athlete and allows you to watch them separately.

But the problem with TV's coverage is that you're not really seeing the Olympics, in all their chaotic and confusing sprawl. You're seeing small, super-slick, heartwarming stories that have been concocted for you by skilled professionals, and that you dutifully imbibe. They're good stories, but after a while, they start to feel cramped and artificial. The endless focus on Americans, when they're not among the leaders, can feel like you're trapped in a marathon performance of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," in which a couple of doomed minor characters take over the whole drama. For me, that happened last night with Artemev and Horton. At a certain point, I wanted a wider look at the competition.

If you've attended the games in person, this feeling is even stronger. You long to be actually in the venues, armed with your own eyes and binoculars, creating your own narrative. If you want to observe the travails of that low-ranked Estonian gymnast as he tries to come back from a disastrous fall, you can. And if you decide you don't need to watch the Americans exclusively, because they're in 12th and 14th place (as they were much of Wednesday night), you don't have to.

This isn't just a problem with gymnastics, it's a problem with TV's Olympics coverage in general. As I say, there's no single answer to it. But just once, I'd love to see an event narrated entirely from the point of view of the Australians, or the French, or the Nigerians. The novelty would be interesting. The stories would be different. And it would remind American viewers that there's a whole world out there that they're not seeing.

Finally, a few words about the competition itself. It was one of those meets that showed just how incredibly dangerous gymnastics is: There were several falls, one particularly harrowing one by Japan's Tomita off the rings, that could have resulted in serious injury, or even death. It gives you even more respect for these superhuman performers, who have a legitimate claim, along with decathletes, to be considered the greatest athletes in the world.

Another remarkable thing, no doubt partly related to the sport's danger and difficulty, was the deep camaraderie and respect the gymnasts displayed. After each routine, they would shake hands or high-five their competitors, even when medals were on the line. Battling head-to-head for a spot on the podium at the end of the competition, Khorokhordin and Uchimura shook hands before Uchimura performed his crucial routine -- which resulted in the Japanese gymnast (a great talent who also has the most amazingly feminine face) winning silver. And China's Yang was overheard saying, "Go Fabian" before German gymnast Fabian Hambüchen performed. If you like sportsmanship, this was about as good as it gets.

Finally, there was Yang, who after a disastrous showing in Athens came through on the biggest stage to confirm his status as the best gymnast in the world. Afterward, Yang graciously noted that "Paul Hamm not here." Maybe the American champion, who was forced to withdraw because of a broken hand, could have pushed Yang, who faltered on his last apparatus, the high bar. But this was Yang's day, his deserved triumph. And he savored it in a memorable way, one that showed him in a completely different light. After his winning score was announced, Yang walked around the floor, clapping his hands over his head and pointing his finger at the rapturous crowd. No fake humility here -- this was a man made of iron, who knew it and wasn't afraid to show it. And then, when the camera zoomed in on him as he sat on the bench, he emitted a series of low, gloating, guttural cackles, a kind of monster-mash laugh -- "ha ha ha ha." It was funny and idiosyncratic and totally off the wall, and it shattered his image as a stern automaton performing for the greater glory of the Motherland. Cackle away all you want, big guy. You've earned it.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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