Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Musings

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London were, as every Olympic Games are (at least in my personal memory), spectacular. From the pageantry of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies to the human drama of individual athletes to the nail-biting photo finishes to the puzzles of unfamiliar sports and convoluted rules, this year’s Olympics were no exception. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights that stick out in my mind:

The Brouhaha Over the U.S.A. Team Uniforms (Lowlight)
The official 2012 Summer Olympics USA Team Uniform

Even before the Games began, there was trouble over the uniforms – they were made in China, they featured an absurdly large designer logo that outshone the American flag, they were ridiculously overpriced. During the Games, some of the uniforms (and, rather ridiculously, the Olympians wearing them) were criticized for not being patriotic enough in that they were in colors other than red, white, and blue. Despite some of these criticisms being valid, it was a shame that the uniforms made headlines more often than the athletes wearing them.

Swimmer Missy Franklin (Highlight)
Missy's Tweet from the Closing Ceremonies; Missy at right, with teammate Kara Lynn Joyce

I had never heard of Missy Franklin prior to the Olympics, but I am now a firm member of her fan club. Not only is she an amazingly gifted and hard-working athlete, she is a charming, humble, and delightful human being. She was obviously thoroughly enjoying every moment at the Games, and her smile during the Closing Ceremonies packed enough wattage to power the entire stadium. And the fact that she is a member of her school’s “Anglophile Club”, which speaks in British accents and drinks tea, only endeared her to me more. She is the ideal embodiment of the Olympic athlete.

Sports You Never Get to See (Lowlight AND Highlight)
The pistol shooting portion of the modern pentathlon
So many Olympic sports never make a television appearance other than at the Olympic Games. This includes sports most people are at least nominally familiar with, such as judo, fencing, water polo, and synchronized swimming, but also lesser-known events like race walking, canoe slalom, modern pentathlon (fencing, shooting, horseback jumping, swimming, and running), track cycling, and handball. Highlight for actually televising some of these fascinating events; lowlight for not giving enough coverage or background on either the sports or their athletes.

Michael Phelps’ Medal Count (Highlight)

200m IM gold medalist Phelps (right) and silver medalist Ryan Lochte
Since the 2008 Olympics, Phelps had gotten a bit of a reputation for being something of a party boy and an arrogant git (sorry, there’s no American equivalent to that expression. But you know what I mean). Prior to these Games, I found myself not really feeling a strong need to root for him, especially since he seemed to have lost the spark and the drive he had shown in previous Olympic Games. However, I found his behavior to be reasonably gracious after failing to medal in his first event, and his spark seemed to return for the following events. Not an undeserving recipient of the title of most decorated Olympian in history, as the holder of 22 Olympic medals, 19 of them gold. The footage of him interacting with aspiring young swimmers as part of the foundation he began after the 2008 Olympics didn’t hurt his reputation with me, either.

The Royals Are Human (Highlight)
William and Kate beaming with national pride during the Opening Ceremonies
From the Queen’s delightful appearance on film with James Bond during the Opening Ceremonies, to William and Kate holding hands in the stands, to Harry’s cheery whistling and singing along during the Closing Ceremonies, the British Royal family put on a charmingly human face at the Games. Extra points for their exuberance at not only their countrymen’s achievements, but for the winners of each event. Even if London got no other benefits from hosting the Olympic Games, the benefit from showing the royals – particularly the younger generation - in such a refreshingly positive light is incalculable.

Feck Video Goes Viral (Lowlight)
[Out of sympathy for Mr. Feck, I will omit posting a photo of his dive.]

Much like the unfortunate skier who graced the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports for years (“the agony of defeat,” indeed), German diver Stephan Feck will be forced to relive his Olympic disaster for years to come. Feck’s foot slipped off the board as he began his second round dive and he landed in the water flat on his back, resulting in a score of 0.0. Every Olympian hopeful dreams of being famous throughout the world, but I don’t think this is what Feck had in mind.

The Parents’ Perspective (Highlight)
Aly Raisman's parents watching her balance beam routine.

One of my favorite parts of Olympic coverage has always been interviews with the athletes’ families, where they describe getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to practice, uprooting their family to move nearer to a training facility, going for weeks and months without seeing their kids, and trying to describe the feeling of watching their child compete in the Olympic Games. But nothing explained that feeling more eloquently than the footage of Aly Raisman’s parents watching her perform on the uneven bars. As my husband once described watching his daughter’s gymnastics meets, “It’s four hours of sheer boredom punctuated by four minutes of sheer terror.” Extra bonus points for P&G’s lovely “Thank You, Mom” series of ads, especially the one showing Olympians still seen as little kids through their parents’ eyes.

Closing Ceremonies (Highlight)

Ballerina Darcey Bussell’s dramatic entrance as a flaming red phoenix
The start of the Closing Ceremonies was a bit lackluster. There was spectacle, but the sound was terrible and the energy was flat. And who decided that Russell Brand should not only appear, but sing? But all that changed with the entrance of the Spice Girls riding in lit-up Bentleys. Each one looked (and sounded) as spectacular as ever, and when they climbed on top of the cars and continued singing as they zoomed around the Union Jack-shaped track, the crowd went wild. The show only got better with the appearance of Eric Idle to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” accompanied by roller-skating nuns flashing Union Jack boxer shorts, and was topped off by a glorious virtual Freddy Mercury. Other memorable moments mixed in were a choir of children singing and signing John Lennon’s “Imagine” while dancers formed a giant plaster replica of John’s face, a performance by Stomp, Timothy Spall portraying Winston Churchill atop a replica of Big Ben, and of course, thousands of Olympians from all countries mingling, dancing, and just plain celebrating. The final fireworks and brilliant red phoenix rising from the Olympic torch were a fitting ending to the Games. And based on the taste of Brazil we saw, the 2016 Opening and Closing Ceremonies are something to look forward to.

All in all, I’d call the 2012 Summer Olympic Games a rousing success. Hey, let's do it again in four years!

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