Monday, February 27, 2006

Paucity All Around

The Winter Olympians have departed Turin and headed home either to retirement or four more years of training in relative obscurity.  Meanwhile, their summer counterparts continue to labor in comparable anonymity anticipating their moments in the Beijing sun two years hence.

From our shores these just concluded games were relatively free of the strident nationalism that marred many earlier Olympics, testimony less to the absence of politics than to the absence of interest.  Attendance at these games was disappointing.  Viewerships, particularly in the United States, was dismal.

Many explanations have been offered for the failure of these games to attract broad interest in the United States.  The internet is cited for providing results at least eight hours before the events themselves would be aired on tape during prime time.  These anticlimaxes might have been mitigated had the three hours of prime time coverage not included at least two hours of commercials and twenty minutes of the nauseating profiles that have become a staple of Olympic broadcasts no matter which network is at the controls. Finally, the notable failures of some over-hyped individuals, Bode Miller in particular, and some teams, the U.S. hockey team, were also blamed for the lack of interest at home.

Meanwhile, the popular quadrennial refrain inextricably linked to all Olympic Games, that politics and sport are separate, has been dispelled once again, but not in the usual quarters.

We can thank Bryant Gumbel for injecting race into these Games.  The always smug and pedantic Gumbel concluded an unrelated broadcast on the program he hosts on HBO by pontificating that he had no intention of watching the upcoming Games, filled as they were with such irrelevant “sports” as curling and luge among others.  Likening the games to a GOP convention for their lack of racial diversity, Gumbel scorned the “paucity of black athletes” in Turin and mocked the claim by organizers that these Games showcased many of the world’s greatest athletes.

The backlash was immediate and intense.  Regrettably, some of it tried to refute Gumbel’s contentions by focusing on the one American black athlete, Shani Davis, who captured a gold and silver medal at the games, when all of the umbrage should have targeted Gumbel’s own racism and, more to the point, his identity crisis.

Elsewhere in the Olympic sphere it was politics as usual as two ancient and bitter rivals, Sweden and Finland, played each other for the first time ever for the gold medal in hockey.  Even if American had already tuned out this match on the next to last day of the Games, I have little doubt it was played before a huge crowd portions of which waved flags and shouted Sverige, Sverige, Sverige!!!

And lest you think nationalism was otherwise absent, a medals count was available on every internet site, sports page and television station to let us know exactly where we stood against the rest of the world.  For the record, the U.S. came in second, not a bad showing for a bunch of mostly white people who like cold weather.


Oisín/Wizlah said...

Tom, I've seen you and Tom D bring up the nationalism thing in one or two of your posts, and I'm interested to know whether you feel the flag waving is a pain because it's blatant bandwagoneering by folk who don't care for the sports, or because you feel that we could all maybe do without strong nationalist feelings which can be tapped in other, more dangerous fashions.

Tom Goodman said...

I would be in favor of having all Olympic athletes wear Olympic uniforms instead of national ones. I'd also eliminate playing national anthems for the medals ceremonies. The gold, silver and bronze medals are distinction enough. The only time I would be in favor of displaying obvious national differences would be during the Opening Ceremonies when it can be unifying to show the diversity of nations sending delegations to a single site to participate in the games. After that, make the central story the sports and athletes not the nations. I am not so naive as to believe that in the final analysis, national and racial differences will not insinuate themselves into every Olympiad, but I am not in favor of abetting that process.