What happened to the real Olympics?

By only showing snippets of classic events like the decathlon, high jump and pole vaulting, NBC is missing what makes the Olympics special.

Published August 23, 2008 7:20PM (EDT)

I am NBC's ideal viewer. I've watched just about every second of every one of its prime-time shows (OK, I may have fast-forwarded through an hour or two of synchronized diving). I became a dutiful info-ostrich, trying to avoid finding out what happened in the events before the broadcasts. (I was surprisingly successful: I think the first prime-time result that I learned about before NBC showed it was Shawn Johnson's gold medal on the balance beam. It helps to avoid all contact with the outside world.) I thoroughly enjoyed just about all of the events I watched -- in fact, I usually turned off my TV at 12:30 or 1 a.m. (the consequence of living in that despised province known as West Coastia) feeling emotionally satiated and thoroughly wrung out. As anyone who has read any of my hyperbolic ravings about sporting events I watch only every four years knows, I don't have a shortage of enthusiasm. I'm an Olympics dog, and I happily lap up whatever the NBC producers decide to put in my dish.

But with only a day-plus of these marvelous games to go, I have to say that NBC has really blown it with its prime-time coverage, especially of the second week. It's simply not showing us the classic Olympic events, like the decathlon, discus, hammer throw, javelin, high jump, long jump or pole vault. Yeah, it'll toss in a minute or two of coverage of the winning jump or the last decathlon event, but that's kind of like tearing out the last page of "War and Peace" and saying you read it.

These are great, epic events. They're the heart and soul of the Olympics. They are the central stitches in its vast historic tapestry. They connect us with great memories of past Olympics, of Al Oerter and Sergei Bubka and Rafer Johnson and Dick Fosbury. Even more than baseball, the Olympics are all about tradition and continuity. The Olympic record book isn't just a set of statistics -- it's a vast encyclopedia of memories. By all but ignoring the events that make the Olympics special, NBC is doing its viewers a great disservice. A young kid watching the Olympics for the first time on TV would really not understand what the games are all about. And that's a damn shame.

It's obvious why NBC has covered the games the way it has: Money. It's aiming to get the maximum number of viewers, and it has succeeded. Ratings are high. Lots of people are watching, and that's good. But what they're watching is not really the Olympics. I know, with only four hours in the prime-time slot, it's all about triage. But the Olympics patient has died in the waiting room.

I'm an unapologetic fan of beach volleyball -- men's and women's. I love watching it. But I would far rather have seen less of it, and more in-depth coverage of the pole vault or the long jump, during prime time. Same thing with diving. It's a great event -- and one with far more Olympic history than beach volleyball. But it's not in the same class as the high jump!

Of course, it's not easy to televise events like the high jump and the pole vault. They take hours to complete. But that's part of their appeal. You keep setting the bar higher and higher, and lesser competitors fall away. (Watching the dramatic battles for silver and bronze is one of the great joys of the Olympics -- but those battles rarely appear on gold-obsessed TV.) In any case, I think people would watch these events if NBC covered them. Partly that's because they are elemental: What's simpler than who can jump the highest? And unlike subjective sports such as diving or gymnastics, they're not judged -- either you clear the bar or you don't. Whether you win or lose is not dependent on the whim of some dude from Austria. I'm not dissing judged sports -- I think gymnasts may be the greatest athletes at the Olympics. But NBC needs to devote more time to the basics.

My other gripe is that we don't see enough "minor" sports like table tennis, badminton and shooting. These aren't in the same category as track and field, but they, too, are part of the Olympics. Would it kill NBC to show one less hour of beach volleyball or synchronized diving, and give us just a little taste of the dazzling variety of athletic activities that the Olympics offer?

And then, there have simply been inexplicable omissions. Why was the women's soccer final not on prime time? Even if you're making all your programming decisions based on demography and numbers, wouldn't the most popular women's sport in the country rate an hour and a half? All the more, from NBC's egregiously U.S.-centric perspective, because the U.S. women were in the game. NBC has done a good job with most of the track events, but unless I missed it, the 1,500-meter final was not in prime time. Huh? This is the metric mile, one of the most important races in the Olympics. But I saw it only because I happened to still be awake at 12:30 a.m.

Finally, speaking of U.S.-centrism: It really needs to be dialed back. This isn't just NBC's problem, it's a perennial problem. Maybe things were a little better in earlier Olympics -- I think they were, but I could be wrong. In any case, the heavy-handed focus on American athletes has gotten out of control. Just as NBC's scanting of the core Olympic events diminishes the games, so does its parochialism.

Before I say anything else, please, angry flag wavers, spare me the usual letters about how "you liberals hate the U.S." As a fan, I'm as pro-U.S. as the next dude. Rooting for athletes from your country is the most innocent tribalism there is. And I understand that for a broadcaster, striking the right balance between highlighting U.S. athletes, which viewers expect and is legitimate up to a point, and capturing the internationalist spirit of the Olympics is not easy.

But NBC has made almost no effort to strike that balance. It's all U.S., all the time. A whiff of quasi-official patriotism hangs over its coverage. It feels like the network has decided that any internationalist tilt would be un-American.

And that's too bad, because the Olympics are different. They're not an athletic war between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Of course every country wants to win. That's fine. But the Olympics are ultimately about sportsmanship and respecting your competitors. They're about affirming the brotherhood and sisterhood of athletes, which span the globe. They're much bigger than any one country. They're about humanity.

I hope most Americans recognize that. But NBC isn't doing much to help. As seen through their filter, the Olympics are compulsively entertaining and dramatic. But they aren't the real Olympics -- either in sports or in spirit.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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