I should say that the worst part of not having a TV, like a surprising amount of my generation, is not being able to watch the Olympics. It’s a bit like not having a car. Sure, you can get by with public transportation, scrumming it with the people on probation and beating off the occasional straggler for a seat someone peed on. But every two or so years, you’re going to want to break the bounds of the 103B route to watch the Super Bowl or see NBC Nightly News, only to be hauled up short on your leash like a ravenous German shepherd.
The best non-TV owners can hope for is to scrimp through clips of the Olympics on YouTube, who’s like a friend that lets you borrow his Datsun every other weekend and Tuesdays from nine to noon. It’s actually not a bad system once you get used to it, considering you can watch straight through whatever Olympic event you want without commercials—or even decide halfway through you don’t really care about the athletic process, you just want to see them finish.
Occasionally, a random scroll through the events that don’t land primetime coverage on TV will come up with something good, like the wrestling match that ended with the two Mongolian team managers tearing off their shirts and screaming at the judges, who responded by taking more points away from the Mongolian athlete. The Tajikistanis were pleased; they got a bronze medal on a technicality, which is good for a country I thought was Turkmenistan spelled wrong.
I do, however, miss Bob Costas, whose calm voice is synonymous with my entire Olympic watching career, as well as the stories that come with every event. When you only watch the competition, all you see is a winner; you don’t know that a bull shark attacked her in a freak pool accident and that her mother, who is present at the event, has stage four ovarian cancer that will kill her in the next five to ten minutes.
Like Costas, who only gets pulled out every two years from whatever coat closet NBC hides him in, the Olympics are full of those sports that no one really cares about until the next Olympics. It’s a brief two-week period when we all suddenly care about diving and shot put and pommel horse, and then it’s back behind junior hockey and AA baseball in the cultural consciousness, where nobody cares if you throw a javelin three hundred feet.
Lord knows what Usain Bolt does during the four years he’s not running in the Olympics; it’s questionable as to whether or not he actually exists. He’s probably teaching a freshman gym class or working part-time at Burger King—or whatever the Jamaican equivalent of Burger King is, maybe Da’ Burga Mahn.
But for those whose mental fortitude matches their physical ability, the Olympics are the time to shine—or be snuffed out—while representing their country. Anyone from Botswana to Canada can theoretically compete, although the US tends to dominate. You don’t realize this until you leave the country and the announcers are highlighting someone who comes in sixth in the sprints or second place in BMX, which is really like racing around the neighborhood on a ten-year-old’s bike.
It’s a time for all the irregular sports, some of which—however much they are fun to do personally—are boring as hell to watch. The marathon is a good example. What are we supposed to do—sit and watch a Kenyan run for two and half hours, only to be slowly passed by another Kenyan?
Archery is another one that should be a lot better than it is. It’s a bit depressing, especially for the people who are present at the event. If you think a football game is hard to follow from row 954F bleacher seats, try archery. I’m sure if you could zoom in on their faces, they’d be a bit deflated, as if they’d bought an Apple knock-off brand that contracted eleven viruses after checking their email the first time.
The archery in itself is strange too. The bow has so much extemporary gadgetry it looks like a cross between a weather vane and a massive can opener—the really technical ones that no one can figure out how to use. Essentially, all they’ve done is made a really inefficient rifle.
Maybe if we combined some of the less-interesting sports into one super sport. Say marathon running with a beefed-up version of taekwondo and then put it near the archery area. Yeah, yeah, and then somehow work in a raging bull and light the arrows on fire… We could call it “The 42,000 Meter Flaming Bull Survival Sprint.” I think it has potential.
Some of the lesser-known Olympic sports, however, pull through in fascinating ways. Despite its somewhat lackluster reputation, ping pong is enthralling, taking the endurance and skill of a tennis player added to the finesse of playing with miniature objects. It’s ridiculous really, how quickly the little plastic ball can zoom from person to person—although the athletes aren’t exactly who you’d pick out for Olympic caliber.
In fact, they’re probably the only Olympic participants completely in the clear for any anabolic conspiracy; most of them look like they’ve been stolen from the local adoption shelter where orphans play ping pong fifteen hours a day and cry into their paddles at night. Human tears and a lack of physical affection—that’s what makes them so good.
As much as I enjoy the events, I also like hearing what the announcers manage to come up with to add to athletic perfection. They’re supposed to express what we all feel, creating words for the emotions that tumble about inside us. It’s something we all have to do of course, but our audience is limited (friends, family, coworkers…) whereas announcers have millions of people listening to the ecstatic drivel that comes out of their mouths, and they get paid for it—meaning it has to be some extra-good drivel.
I was particularly keen to hear what they would say after the gymnast Simone Biles’ magnetic performance on the floor; the commentator had to have something prime, especially because everyone knew she was going to completely dominate. He had probably been agonizing over it the night before, lying in a stark hotel room at two o’clock in the morning, staring at the cracked plaster on the ceiling. What do I say? What’s a good headline? Biles with styles? Biles on tiles? Biles and files?
And as Biles hit her strides perfectly, the announcer sweated, knowing this gold medal was to be the culmination not only of Biles’ training but also of his headline glory. When she raised her arms, flush with victory after the last tumble, the commentator, his lips dry in anticipation, laid it down.
“And it’s Biles by miles.”
It was then that I shut my laptop and went to have some dinner. The Olympics are great and all—unique in a way that baseball and football can’t touch—but I think we’re all somewhat glad that we don’t have to watch them all year round. They stick around just long enough for us to realize why they aren’t primetime sports and then vanish into the separate cliques and cults that will keep them going until the next Olympics.
But then four years down the road—when we’ll be much richer, smarter, and healthier—we will eagerly turn on our TVs, Bob Costas will come out of his sleep chamber, the athletes will don their country’s gear, and we will settle down in our couches to watch some ping pong. What a glorious tradition this is.
Ben Rietema (’14) lives in Wanaka, New Zealand at the moment. Besides staring at and running in mountains, he makes a wicked hospital corner and can clean a bathroom like Gandhi (if he were a housekeeper) at his job at a local lodge. He also enjoys saying “HOUSEKEEPING” in the highest pitch voice he can muster before entering a room to service it. benrietema.wordpress.com/