Monday, February 20, 2006

Underwhelming the competition

While the Winter Olympics struggle to outperform reality TV and second-rate dramas like "Grey’s Anatomy," for ratings, some of us who are watching, are not terribly impressed with what we've seen, thus far.

My bone to pick isn’t necessarily with the athletic performances of most of the world's athletes, or the world class competition they provide for appreciative viewers. My issues are with both the way that NBC chooses to focus on select events, aiming for their highest possible primetime audience, and the underwhelming performance of the over hyped and cocky American athletes.

As for ratings, the 2006 Olympics in Turin, are the lowest rated winter games since 1988. Not that I really care whether General Electric and NBC take a financial bath. In a worst case scenario, I can always watch Canadian television, even if I can’t understand a word the French-speaking announcers utter.

Both the American and Canadian hockey teams have performed poorly, with the U.S. losing consecutive games to Sweden and Slovakia, and the progenitors of hockey, the Canadians, losing to Finland and world hockey power, Switzerland. While the U.S. has struggled often in international ice hockey competition, there have been moments of glory, none as unforgettable as 1980’s miracle on ice. Unfortunately, with the need to introduce professional players into the mix, beginning in 1998, the results have been underwhelming. Even on the women’s side, the highly-touted U.S. women’s team, expected to play for the gold medal, lost to an unheralded Swedish women’s team on Friday, in a shootout. The U.S. and Canada were thought to be the elite women’s teams in the women’s hockey pool, but Sweden, which almost didn’t send a team, rode the heroic goaltending of 19-year-old Kim Martin, to stun the U.S. women, who now play a consolation match with hopes of at least coming home with a bronze medal.

I watched most of the women’s U.S./Sweden match on Friday, before a power outage robbed me of the opportunity to see the overtime period and shootout, ultimately capture by the Swedes. I was able to see the ending, yesterday, as CNBC rebroadcast the game.

Clearly, the U.S. team was superior in talent, but time-after-time, they were unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities. At one point, they had a two person advantage, due to penalties, and had difficultly getting shots on net. Not to take anything away from the sensational play of Martin, and the gritty leadership of veteran forward, Maria Rooth, but like their male counterparts, the women’s team underperformed when it counted and winning a bronze isn’t even a sure thing for them, at this point.

It’s not hard to understand why much of the world resents the U.S., particularly when we arrive with our red, white, and blue cockiness and swagger and then get dominated by the likes of tiny Norway in many events, or, our ski team, with all its bravado and boasting, gets out medaled by a sister and brother team from Croatia.

Thus far, Janica and Ivica Kostelic have two medals, to team U.S.A.’s one, in Alpine skiing. Janica, who won a gold in Salt Lake City, in 2002, is coming off major knee surgery. Both she and her brother, Ivica, have had to struggle to compete at this level. Coming from a war-torn country, their father, Ante, often had to “hawk” skis and other prizes they had won from sponsors, just to put gas in their car, as they traveled around Europe to competitions.

While I’m obviously critical of much of the hype surrounding the U.S. team, there are a few athletes that march to their own drummer and transcend all the hype of the U.S. media/marketing machine.

One of these athletes is Shani Davis, the African-American speed skater who won gold in the 1,000-meter race on Saturday. Davis, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, not exactly the hotbed of American speedskating, had been criticized by flag-waving, loudmouth, Chad Hedrick, of Texas, because Davis chose not to skate for the U.S. team in the relay event, focusing on his individual race instead. Davis finished with the gold and Hedrick, finished out of the medals, ending up a distant sixth.

I found it interesting how NBC chose to hype Hedrick, the stereotypical, white superstar, while totally ignoring Davis, until he won the gold. There has been very little on Davis, even after his gold medal in the 1,000. He still has an opportunity on Tuesday to race in the 1,500-meter race and could very well medal in that, also.

Maine's own, Seth Westcott, about as down-to-earth a person as you'll find on this international stage, wowed the world with his gold medal performance in the newest event, snowboarding's boarder cross.

Today, Bode Miller, who has been a major disappointment, thus far, races in the men’s Super-G, which NBC will broadcast this evening. While I’ve defended Miller and the criticized those who took issue with his 60 Minutes interview, I’m afraid Bode has gotten caught up in his own celebrity and has forgotten why many are interested in him in the first place. People are willing to overlooking loudmouth boors, if they can do something no one else can do—in Miller’s case, ski. If you are having problems making it down the mountain, then you end up being seen as an overbearing ass, instead of a world-class athlete. The former seems to be something that this year’s team has in abundance.


weasel said...

I agree that the games have been horrifically ill-presented by NBC (with a couple of exceptions: their mini-doc on Saturday on the Norwegian/Italian contest in the 94 cross country relay was ace).

I can't bring myself to feel bad for the US and Canadian hockey teams of either gender. If reputations and history were the sole precursors of success the Bruins would lift the Stanley Cup every year (oh please oh please oh please!).

NBC made a stab at highlighting Jana Kostelic and Shani Davis, giving them both one of those 5 minute profiles shot on film they usually reserve for gimpy ice dancers. Unfortunately both concentrated on their hardships to the exclusion of the their athletic ability. One thing that links Jana and Shani is their refusual to buy into the hype: Jana refused to answer questions about her tribulations and Shani declined to take up the the chance to wave both the flag and the Mexico 68 podium fist much to the obvious chagrin of the sideline reporter.

The skiers and boarders; eh, is Bode selling the hype or is NBC choosing that angle? After all, he finished 5th in the downhill, 5 places above the American favorite Daron Rahlves (nobody is on his case: doesn't fit the storyline).

The consensus from the Weasel couch is that Chad Hedrick is a Texan dick. For all his talk about "team work" he seems to have chosen to ignore the quietly stated request from the US Olympic committee to play down the ugly nationalism as alluded to by Costas during the opening ceremony. He reminds me of Mary Decker Slaney in all his parochial American attitude. I hope Davis blows him away in the 1500.

Such is the nationalistic tone of NBCs coverage that I find myself wondering if Davis is the first African-American (as constantly reported) or first black man period to win an individual winter medal. I can't trust them to report accurately. Still, despite the best efforts of the TV folks, if I turn the sound down I see that the rw&b is swamped in a sea of Dutch orange at the speed skating track, by Norwegian and Italian flags at the alpine events, and massive French tricolours at the snow-cross track.

I didn't realize the French-Canadian channel was showing the games (I started to watch "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" in French the other day but it did my head in. Jar Jar en francais. Eek). I should dig out my old Larousse and tune in.

Listmaker said...

as long as the south koreans don't get screwed by the u.s. again, my household is a calm one during the olympics.