Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Torino helps NY’er navigate through boredom and more

Every few months I get into a pop culture rut. A TV show I’m watching will finish its season or get cancelled, a few weeks will go by without anything exciting released in the cinema, and I’ll be forcing my way through a book that I don’t care that much about.

Such is the state that I find myself on this banal day in mid February, and up until recently my stopover in dullsville was seeming to have no end in sight.

That is until the twentieth winter Olympic games in Torino, Italy! Hooray!

Ever since I was a young child I have adored watching the Olympics. I during the Barcelona Summer Olympics of ’92, I taped hours and hours of footage on my parent’s VCR, watching it over and over again. I’m not particular either –Winter games, Summer, track and field, curling, speed skating, diving, --I love it all.
I don’t much follow professional sports, with the exception of Major League Baseball (go Mets!), and I have never been very athletically oriented, as I have all the grace and hand eye coordination of an earthworm. But perhaps it’s because of this very reason that I am so awestruck by the sleek, swift athletes that perform their sport with such precision and agility.

But it’s not only the wowee factor that I find engaging about the Olympic games, it’s the emotional undertow of what these athletes have at stake. I remember two years ago (in Athens 2002) watching Deena Kastor, the American, coming in third in the marathon. She was crying(with joy) the entire last mile she ran as she realized she was going to get the bronze medal. Kastor had not been favored to medal at all, and traditionally American woman have not done exceedingly well at the marathon. For her, winning a medal was a miracle. Last night, as I was watching the figure skating pairs compete, NBC did a piece on Chinese figure skating coach, Yao Bin. Bin, himself had tried his hand at competitive skating decades ago. In 1979, for the first time, China sent representatives to the World Championships of figure skating. Yao Bin was twenty one years old, and his female partner, Luan Bo, was only twelve years old. At the time, China did not have the monetary funds to send along a coach, and as it was their training and experience was limited. The pair literally pieced together their routine by looking at newspaper photographs of other skaters. Bin and Bo did terribly, literally becoming a laughing stock in Germany as they struggled to complete their routines on the ice. Yao Bin swore that he would not be defeated, and today he has become China’s leading skating coach; last night his team Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao won the silver medal –no one was laughing anymore.

These sort of sentimental underdog stories are the sort of thing that I eat up in the context of the Olympics. They are almost too sweet to be true –if we saw them wrapped up in the cellophane of Hollywood, we would chide them and call them hackneyed. And yet when we see the tear stained or determined faces of the athletes and the coaches behind them –real faces, we are inspired, or at least I am. What’s more is, the Olympic Games often highlight stories that prove the meaning the proverb, “it’s not all about winning.” In the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Phillip Bitok of Kenya, was the first athlete of an African nation to compete in Cross Country Skiing. Bitok was a runner who had taken an interest in cross country skiing through a Nike Olympic sponsorship program two years prior. During the ’98 games, Bitok became friendly with Bjorn Daehlie, a Norweigian world class Cross Country skier from who had won many a championship. On the day of Olympic competition, Bitok took twice as long to complete the course as Daehlie (who took home the gold medal that day). But as Bitok crossed the finish line Daehlie was there waiting for him and cheering him on; the two have been friends ever since. Phillip Bitok has returned to Torino this year to compete in the Cross Country Skiing competition. It is these sorts of stories about personal friendship and triumph that also make the Olympics so uplifting. Who could forget the story of the Jamaican bobsledding team, which made their debut in Calgary in the 1988 Winter Olympic games, and inspired the film Cool Runnings? (Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, It’s Bobsled time!) They didn’t win a medal but they’re quirky mix of tenacity and temerity made them a inspired and welcome presence at the games.

A lot of people have legitamite gripes about the Olympics. They point out that judges are sometimes paid off and that the athletes use performance enhancing drugs. There is also the valid concern that the international representation is stilted and many underdeveloped nations do not have the funds and resources to send their athletes to compete. Yet there is something about the fundamental ideology of the Olympic games that is irrefutably ambitious and progressive. The idea that groups from all over the world can congregate and peacefully interact with one another under the tenets of altheleticism is a hopeful one.

The Olympic Games may indeed have room for improvement, and the American Television broadcast is no exception either. I love the John Williams score which has stuck as the theme song of the Olympics since they were in LA in 1984, but some of the other pop and circumstance can border on the grating. There’s only so much running commentary from Bob Costas, who runs the gammet on everything from the temperature to the costume fit of an interpretive dancer during the Opening Ceremonies, that one person can take. In fact the opening short film that kicked off the first night of broadcast for the games was magnificently cheesy and overblown. Some of the voice over sounded like it might have been lifted from a loftily written high school essay, with phrases like “Since the dawn of man…” and “One has to go back hundreds of years to understand the origin of…”

And yet…

And yet, I love the Olympics. I can’t help myself. Every plot convention and sappy story that I eschew in Hollywood Studio films and average TV shows, I devour in the form of Olympic glory. I’m aware that I’m doing exactly what NBC wants me to do, when I get a lump in my throat watching a triple axle landed with perfection, or a fifty two year old woman get a decent time in the luge competition, but I don’t care. There is something about the Olympics that will always remain magical in my mind; when they are good, they are almost too good to be true.

Sentimentality packaged in real life?

I’ll take it.


Anonymous Snakes on a Blog said...

I should have included you in the fantasy olympics league that I made up. It's quite the coup. All I can say is, go South Korea!

9:02 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Aw, I would have love to have been a part of that!!

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Snakes on a Blog said...

I'll remember to get in touch with you if I do it again in two years.

My roommate just lost two points from his team for having a Brazilian thrown out on drug charges, it's exciting!

Go Japan!

6:54 AM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

Curling? You really watch curling? I'd be interested to know just how popular it is south of the border. I enjoy playing it a lot, but not so much watching it. Playing is exciting but watching can be boring (pardon the generalization), unless you're really up on the strategy of calling a game. Still, the new rules have helped make it more specator friendly. I used to be competitive and play four five six times a week, but now only on Tuesdays in a work-sponsored intersection league. I win a lot.

Interesting though that we're talking about curling now at the same time as Playboy.

6:04 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

A good friend of mine in college was a big curling player, so that's how I got into it. I used to go watch him curl. I suppose there is a degree of irony in my enjoyment, the fact that its a bit anticlimactic to watch adds to its amusement. I have never tried curling myself, but would like to.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

Most important thing to remember about curling: Winners buy the drinks afterwards.

So you don't have to be good to have fun.

4:19 AM  

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