overthinking the idiot box

February 27, 2006

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At The Buzzer
Is Watching the Winter Olympics a Sport? Maybe It Should Be.

by Alan Bloom

It's 8 a.m. on a Sunday. I've slept for a mere three and a half hours. I tied one on last night, too. Fortunately, though, I'm not feeling the after-effects of that. I'm just very tired. So why, then? Why am I denying myself my Sunday morning privilege of sleeping in? Well, because this is when the gold medal game in ice hockey between Finland and Sweden is on. I have to watch this game. Hell, I'm watching this game right now! It's great! A mesh of NHL and European-based players, rival countries in the truest sense, skill of the highest level. This is really a treat. Early in the second period, the Swedes have tied the game up at one. My dad calls me shortly after, having watched the game in the mountain time zone (I'm in the pacific), fired up about what a fantastic game it was. "Some of the best hockey, I've ever seen," he cheers. The man would know good hockey. He and I have been watching together for the bulk of my life. His enthusiasm snaps me back to life a little bit. As technically proficient and sterling as the game has been thus far, I'm still battling no sleep and dehydration. Now, however, I have a reason not to simply check the internet for the result. It's not something I would ever dream of doing in this instance, but there is that little extra motivation, now.

Over the past three weeks, the internet, the radio (certainly AM frequencies), and most of television have been a death trap for any American spectators hoping for a little drama while watching the twentieth Winter Olympic Games. Such is tape-delayed programming: the bane of a sports fan's existence.
Over the past three weeks, the internet, the radio (certainly AM frequencies), and most of television have been a death trap for any American spectators hoping for a little drama while watching the twentieth Winter Olympic Games. Such is tape-delayed programming: the bane of a sports fan's existence. And in today's ever-spreading media landscape, information is practically unavoidable. Wake up in the morning and you'll hear about Lindsay Jacobellis' showboating mishap that cost her a gold medal in snowboarding. Check your email and you'll be slammed in the face with another Bode Miller letdown (Bode, for all the hype, finished the Games with zero medals).

(UPDATE: Sweden just scored on the power play on a lovely piece of skill by Niklas Kronveld. 2-1 Sweden. Finland, a dark horse heading into the tournament, trails for the first time. Just one minute later, Ville Peltonen puts the Finns back on level ground, 2-2.)

The fortunate thing about these intrusive results, if one could call it fortunate, is that the Winter Olympics, by and large, are a fairly ridiculous set of events. Half of the events baffle most spectators with their inaccessibility. Some others leave a person questioning whether a "competition" and a "sport" are the same thing (they're not). To that end, a dream realized is still that, but it's a matter of classification, not validation.

Folks, I'll leave it to one of the most respected sportscasters in the business to sum up most of the country's position on the Winter Games. As seen on a February broadcast of the marvelous HBO sports magazine, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, one of the smartest men in the business erupted with the following editorial:

"Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't like them and won't watch them... Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness, for God's sake, let the games begin."

Mr. Gumbel might be happy to hear that these games saw American speedskater Shani Davis win the first gold medal ever by a black man. But his complaints, otherwise, stand firm and strong. Part of the reason why I'm so ardent about watching the gold medal ice hockey game is because it's the only event that I care about. I find the Winter session far less interesting than Summer if only because so much of the winter program is so inaccessible. Luge? Short track speedskating? Biathlon? However, the reason I like the Olympics at all — and I imagine why most of the world does — is for international competition. To cheer for your country or nationality is a fun thing. You're automatically linked to whichever athlete is representing your country and, speaking for myself, feel a certain pride when they succeed. Much like a college alum rooting for his alma mater, your investment is inherent. With that being said, it's always more fun to watch a sport you're interested in or, at the very least, familiar with.

Yesterday, I watched the gold medal round of the men's 1500km biathlon. For those who don't know, it's a hybrid of cross-country skiing and target shooting. With a rifle. By virtue of the fact that it is a race whose winner is decided by an objective clock coupled with points for marksmanship, it qualifies as a sport. Though you wouldn't know to look at it. Who would ever think of combining cross-country and guns?

(UPDATE: Holy crap! Detroit Red Wing Nicklas Lidstrom just smashed a shot from the blue line, ten seconds into the final frame, to put Sweden up 3-2.)

Visually, there isn't anything to distinguish good runs from bad, barring a catastrophe like flipping your little box car; and the athleticism of this event is non-existent.
Earlier last week, I happened upon the gold medal run for the two-man bobsleigh event. Two men get up a head of steam and push their toboggan onto a constructed ice track. Once on the track, one man jumps into the pilot seat and the other gets in the fetal position behind him, cowering out of sight (presumably to cut down on wind resistance). They zoom along at a deceptively fast pace, but if not for that convenient little clock in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, I'd have absolutely no idea who was making good time and who wasn't. Visually, there isn't anything to distinguish good runs from bad, barring a catastrophe like flipping your little box car; and the athleticism of this event is non-existent. Gravity and inertia are doing the hard work. All the person riding in the car has to do is shift their body weight — which I'm sure is a challenge, but... This makes for pathetic spectator viewing.

(UPDATE: Action is fast and furious. Sweden just killed a Finnish power play riddled with scoring chances. Six minutes remain. So intense.)

Anyone else try watching short track speedskating? It is, with all due respect, borderline-retarded. I'll be the first to say that Apollo Anton Ohno is a tremendous athlete and an impeccable skater, but there's something contradictory about a race in which a clump of skaters are jostling for position, physically barring one another from being passed without being allowed to touch one another. The key word in that sentence is "race." This event is supposed to highlight speed, yet three-person pile-ups seem to be all too common. Roller derby on ice? Almost. Only roller derby doesn't have as many unavoidable disqualifications that punish the skaters for either trying to preserve a lead or attempting to gain ground from the back of the pack. At least the winner is determined by the objective clock.

One of Bryant Gumbel's valid gripes, a gripe that is echoed by many, is the subjectivity of the Winter Games. Specifically, in it's highlighted event, figure skating. I'll say this much, the fall and ensuing performance of Chinese duo Zhang and Zhang was gripping, high drama. Ice dancers Belbin (so hot...) and Agosto were absolutely beautiful to watch. Sasha Cohen fell twice and still earned a silver medal. How she managed that? I'm not sure, but even with the revised scoring system in the fallout of Skategate '02, people are left scratching their heads at how someone could fall not once, but twice and still grab the silver. She did, otherwise, have a good run, I'm told.

(UPDATE: It's all over. Sweden over Finland, 3-2, in thrilling fashion. What a game! Dad was right. Another thing about the Olympics that tugs my sensitive strings: athletes boisterously belting out their national anthem during the medal ceremony. Added bonus if they're arm in arm as the Swedes were. On the other side of the coin, NHL superstar Teemu Selanne is giving an interview with bloodshot eyes, obviously crushed at coming so close to the gold and falling short.)

Television is not kind to the Winter Olympics. They have so much working against them in terms of "buzz." Unlike the Summer Games, the Winter Olympics (at least in the US) are up against a host of other sports, new television programming, and people just aren't in the celebrating mindset. February is a month for doldrums. Compare that to the summer when people are generally happier, more relaxed and the Summer Olympics can claim center stage, knowing that it's only competition is baseball and reruns.

Now that the Games are over, I'm obliged to echo Mr. Gumbel's sentiment: bring on March Madness.

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