Three Olympic Subtexts
BY Tom Hoopes
| Posted 2/22/10 at 3:20 PM
The Hoopeses bought an antenna and a converter box and so we’re finally watching the Winter Olympics. As usual, it’s not just a sports competition. It’s a microcosm of all that is best and worst about the world we live in.
1. The Moral Subtext.
Olympic Comeuppance. The moral subtext of the 2006 Winter Olympics was “pride cometh before a fall.” A special Bode Miller website and late night partying came before Bode Miller’s fall from the standings. Showboating did in Lindsey Jacobellis when she tried to be cute at the end of her race, and so wiped out, giving the gold and silver to the two people behind her.
Olympian Sportsmanship. This Olympics, Bode has redeemed himself and the moral subtext is a positive lesson in sportsmanship.
If I didn’t know there was drug-testing at the Olympics I would have thought the women’s half-pipe competitors were high: They would wipe out, ruin their chances, then get up and grin and congratulate the winners.
Other great sportsmanship moments: Shani Davis graciously congratulating the little Dutch guy for his flukey win. And Russia’s Plushenko was a terrible sport, and his whole nation joined in, which bodes poorly for their future. But when NBC kept trying to goad the U.S. winner, Evan Lysacek, into sniping back, Lysacek gallantly refused. Again and again. Even though the NBC interviewer practically taunted him into bad sportsmanship. Which brings us to …
2. The Reality TV subtext.
Olympic Soap Opera. In the last few Olympics, the TV producers have turned the games into a kind of soap opera. Which I happen to like. Instead of covering it as a sports competition, they did cloying stories about the Olympians’ past. When you saw them barreling down the track in a sled, you didn’t just think, “Wow. That’s super fast.” You thought, “Maybe now his mother in the hospital will find some way to reconcile with his sister.”
Olympic reality show. But a production style that has been growing in the past has now taken over: The Olympics is a reality TV show.
A “ski-cross” competitor wasn’t just trying his darnedest to win ski races. He was trying his darnedest to not get drunk anymore. I rooted for him to win silver: Gold might spark an alcohol fueled celebration. Bronze might lead to him drowning his sorrows. Silver is a respectable win but not worth going off the wagon for. (Ironically, at the end of the NBC presentation about the alcoholic skier, the presenter said: “Chris hopes today is the second best day of his life. The best day: September 6, 2006, the day he had his last drink.” Um, shouldn’t Sept. 7, 2006, his first day of freedom from alcohol, be his favorite?)
Another victim of the reality show style: Linsdsey Vonn. It happened after she won gold in the Combined Super T or whatever it was. Usually, there is only a quick interview at the end. But since she was crying, the camera refused to tear itself away. Then the interviewer noticed her husband and directed her toward him to capture a moment of human triumph and romantic love.
There followed the most painful moments on TV I have ever witnessed. Vonn had just won, and had lost her composure, and still had a few races to go. Guys have no idea what to say at a moment like this to start with. This poor guy had to do it on TV. It went something like this.
Vonn: [wailing, inconsolably sobbing for no apparent reason, clinging to him in a panicked, desperate way.]
Husband: Good job, babe!
Vonn: I – it’s just [dissolves into tears.]
Husband: Hang in there, honey!
Vonn: The – I – [her body shudders and shakes as she appears to succumb to a black whirlpool undertow of bottomless despair]
Husband: This is a good thing, honey! You won gold!
The worst example of this, though, is speed skater Anton Ohno, who is fresh from another reality TV show, Dancing with the Stars. They coach you there on how to give long self-referrential, upbeat interviews about how you feel. So that’s what he does.
He took a strange victory lap after winning bronze because NBC wants him to be hailed as “the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history.”
Which would be fine, but it was hard not to think that all of this hype over his bronze medal perfomance was a little payback for the Olympic sponsors who use Anton in their ads: Coca-Cola, Vick’s, Omega, AT&T (the spinning ice commercial), Alaska Airlines and (I kid you not) the Washington State Potato Commission.
As the irrational exuberance over his bronze medal filled the screen I expected a voiceover to say: “Bronze. It’s the color of a Washington farmer’s tan. It’s the color of the sun coming up on a Washington State potato field. It’s the color of a Washington potato’s skin when it’s just ripe enough to pluck from the ground. And today, for Anton Ohno, bronze is the color of Olympic dreams come true. Washington Potatoes: They’re not just from Idaho anymore.”
3. The World Peace Subtext.
Which brings me to the final subtext: The World Peace Subtext. I know there are plenty of people who don’t like the New Agey, avante-garde, grand secularist “one-worlder” dream of the Olympics. I love it.
I told my film students that there’s no such thing as an anti-war war movie. Once the film shows two sides at war, you want one side to win and the other side to lose, and you start caring less and less the means they use to get the win. You see this in the last Bourne movie, which tries hard to be anti-military, but just makes military means and motives look cool.
David Mamet recently broke from the relativistic political orthodoxy of Hollywood. If you’ve read what he has written about drama, you wouldn’t be surprised: Drama has to take into account the real-world actions and responses of real people. It has to be structured within a traditional moral order or it loses its audiences.
It’s the same with the Olympics. After the opening ceremony is over and the weird-shaped torch is blazing away somewhere in the background, it’s all about your nation one-upping the other nations. Canadians make fun of Americans for chanting “USA! USA!” Then, when they’re behind, they steal our rhythm and chant “Ca-na-DA! Ca-na-DA!”
It’s world peace through honest, friendly differentiation and competition. It’s diversity at its best: I respect you enough to train my hardest so I can pummel you at ice dancing, twirling my little ice-skater woman more times, to faster music, than you ever will.
And the USA is ahead on the overall medal count, so there.
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