Tag Archives: Olympics

When Wonder Goes Missing

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on August 2, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

I’m spoiled. While four billion people watched last week’s opening ceremonies for the Olympics, I was busy trying to catch up on old episodes of America’s Got Talent. That’s right: I was watching someone whose “talent” was getting hit in the crotch while England spent $42 million on acclaimed director Danny Boyle to create a visual extravaganza that would celebrate the entire history of Great Britain in a little under three hours. (No small feat—I figured the Middle Ages would have lasted at least as long as dinner.) All Boyle managed to do was scrape together 15,000 volunteers to put on the most ambitious show in England’s storied history.

(By the way: don’t spoil it for me. I know it’s a big deal, but I fell asleep before it was over. I still don’t know if the guy who gets hit in the crotch makes it to the next round.)

NBC crowed that 40 million Americans watched the ceremony, but what were the other 275 million doing? 111 million of us watched the Super Bowl, and that only had two teams from the same country playing one sport! Assuming maybe 20 million Americans had dates that Friday night, this still leaves an awful lot of people who found something more interesting to do than watch television. Ignoring for the moment the gravity of the situation (there’s something better than watching TV?), we must acknowledge that we’ve become very hard to please. When I was growing up, we planned our summer vacation around The Battle of The Network Stars with Howard Cosell. Now most of us don’t have the attention span to look up The Battle of The Network Stars or Howard Cosell on the internet.

The other day I overhead someone complaining he felt “ripped off” after watching the Amazing Spider Man remake. Normally I’d be the first one to say that there should be a rule about “remaking” a wildly successful movie franchise that’s less than ten years old. (Twinkies last longer.) However, this guy just spent eight bucks on a matinee ticket for a movie that took hundreds of skilled artists almost two years and $230 million to complete. I’d hate to have to buy that guy a birthday present.

Unfortunately, just as I get comfortable on my high horse, along comes the opening ceremony to bring me back to reality (if not reality TV). I couldn’t be bothered to watch it live—I watched it on my DVR over the weekend. What did I miss? Nothing much, just a military flyby as David Beckham sped the Olympic flame to the stadium by boat and 7,500 actors transformed the field into a replica of London itself. Kenneth Branagh and JK Rowling emerged from their respective holes to find 30 Mary Poppinses descending from the sky on lighted umbrellas to fight a forty-foot tall Voldemort above hundreds of children dancing deliriously with their nurses on spinning bedframes below. 965 drummers accompanied the towers that tore out of the earth and rose into the sky to commemorate the industrial revolution and mark those lost during two world wars. The 79,000 square feet of real grass making up the “British meadow” were transformed into a living ring of molten fire that became the last of the five giant Olympic rings hauled into the air over the frenzied crowd. The ringing of a 25-ton bell preceded the dropping of seven billion pieces of paper onto almost 10,000 ecstatic athletes parading around the grounds in multicolor splendor. 204 copper petals representing each nation were lit before erupting into the giant Olympic Cauldron that would burn like a fallen sun for the next sixteen days. 70,799 pixel screens affixed to the stadium seats created a neon canvas rivaled only by the dazzling fireworks display that lit up London like the second coming of the Blitzkrieg.

I mean, the thing began with the freakin’ Queen parachuting out of an airplane with James Bond into the packed stadium to the sounds of God Save The Queen (delivered first by a children’s choir, then later by the Sex Pistols on tape) and ended with Paul McCartney getting over 80,000 people to sing along to “Hey Jude.” What more could they do to get me to watch, outside of Amelia Earhart returning to tell us about the true origins of Easter Island

Instead, I skimmed through most of it while I finished an egg sandwich, fast-forwarding through commercials and anything that wasn’t exploding. Some people with funny accents spoke, a female graduate student faked her way into the Indian delegation, every British musical act of the last half-century was crammed into a montage, and the Queen looked as if someone had just trampled through her lilies. You know, typical English stuff.

I felt bad, like the kid with the expensive present who plays with the box instead, until I read about Margaret Abbott. In 1900, Margaret was an American art student in Paris when she saw an advertisement for a local golf tournament. She entered, had a nice round, and won a porcelain bowl. What she didn’t know was that the “tournament” was actually part of a horribly planned Olympics and that she’d just become the first American woman to win an Olympic event. That’s how anti-climactic the Olympics can be, even when you’re in them.

This morning, I decided to watch it one more time (mostly to laugh at the lady who managed to sneak into the Indian delegation), but my wife had already deleted it. She needed room for the new season of Project Runway.

The Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics

I don’t have the time nor the energy to go into why the Olympics have lost their relevance. Why will more people watch Simon piss and bitch his way through American Idol than watch the celebration of the human spirit that the Olympics represent? Probably for the same reason more people watched Simon piss and bitch his way through American Idol than watched the Presidential Sate of the Union Address: none of them ever live up to expectations, but only Idol has someone calling them on it.

Be that as it may, I TiVo-ed the season finale of Arrested Development so that I could watch the entire two hours the next day, then fell asleep to the weirdness that is the Olympic opening ceremony. At first I was livid that Fox would sentence Development to wither on the vine like this, sending the last show out on a night traditionally dominated by the opening ceremonies. This passed quickly, however, as those same ceremonies lulled me effortlessly to sleep.

You’d think we’d be more interested in a show that required 6,100 volunteers and 10,000 hours of practice at an estimated cost of $34 million bucks. Instead, market analysts are projecting an average Neilsen rating of 12-14 a night. Hell, even Hee Haw or Temptation Island did better than that. Putting the Olympics up against Idol is like sending Bambi into the lion’s den: it’s hard to envision a happy ending.

Still, I’m a sucker for tradition. I grew up watching the Olympics because my dad was too cheap to spring for cable and Fox was nothing but an ugly gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s all-seeing eye. So I had a few drinks with some friends after work, ate a nice meal, and plopped down in front of the tube to watch the “Rhythm, Passion and Speed” that the producers promised.

What I saw was jarring, as if Frederico Fellini himself had risen from the grave to take one more stab at absurdism: skaters with rocket packs blasting fire whipping around the rink, grown men in little boy outfits playing the Alpen horn (those long “Reeeeeee-cooo-laaaaaaa” thingies) with little flag poles on them, dancing cow couples circled by models of cows on skates, Yoko Ono making a speech about peace before Peter Gabriel performed John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Susan Sarandon (huh?) carrying in the Olympic flag, dancers with bubbles stuck to their heads, dancing trees… It was the perfect dorm-room-with-a-bong video accompaniment.

I started going in and out of sleep as the long procession of around 80 countries we brought into the stadium. Americans entered to “Think” by Aretha Franklin, an interesting choice considering the political climate. The choice for host Italy’s delegation was (and I checked this to make sure it wasn’t a dream) “YMCA” by the Village People. I dare you to try to piece together that decision-making process. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti slathered the shoe polish on his hair and eyebrows for one last time to close out the ceremony with a rousing rendition of… something operatic with weird words and lots of drawn-out vowels.

It ended with a protracted series of explosions that seemed to make some of the athletes awfully nervous: do we really need fireworks at this month’s #1 on the terrorist wishlist? The only thing missing: snow. Temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s this week melted everything, reducing Torino to man-made snow and passing out white parkas so it look “wintery” on camera.

Oh well, there’s always Arrested Development waiting for me in my TiVo.