The Olympics is the worst. Not the games themselves, but the feel-good concept that we’ve tacked onto the Olympics that temporarily satisfies NBC’s need for primetime coverage every two years. As I watched the opening ceremonies, I couldn’t help but wonder which athlete will be this year’s Cinderella story, who will be this year’s Michael Phelps or Fab Five (though I have a few ideas). Even more, I wonder if he or she will be able to pull off another remarkable win for Team USA.
For us, the games are not just an opportunity for patriotism or the enjoyment of sports at the highest level-they are indubitable proof of the kind of justice we long for. We anxiously wait not only for outcomes, but also for the victory of that athlete whose story establishes him or her as the deserving newcomer, the one persevering after a debilitating injury, the legend-in-the-making. The Olympics plays out for us a familiar American story about hard work paid off-it reminds us of everything that’s romantic about capitalism. I am constantly rooting for the unlikely victor, the one whose success seems worked for rather than effortless, the underdog who learned to ice skate with no lessons and with her big sister’s hand-me-down skates. The more meager the beginnings, the more delicious the victory.
There’s even magic in loss. When our should-be victor loses, when his or her leg gives out mid-race, or when he or she misses the triple axel he or she has made hundreds of times before, we are still as emotionally affected as we would have been if he or she had won. We see his or her story as one of slighted victory rather than one of failure and defeat. If he or she is lucky, the poignant loss will be the subject of a Visa commercial next Olympics season, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
I don’t want to discount the games entirely-they do show us real human perseverance and are a humbling example of immense accomplishment. For those who make it to the podium, I can only imagine that the experience of victory is just as magical as we’ve been told it is. For them, their stories are not just this year’s media victories, but ones lifetimes in the making, ones viscerally felt. For those of us watching at home, though, the magic of victory is partly fabricated. Since I’m no judge of talent (and since skating backwards seems like a medal-worthy accomplishment to me), I root for whomever’s back-story is conveniently relayed to me as the races and routines play out on screen.
I know I sound like some sort of Olympics Grinch, but the games have become so focused on reassuring us that the world is a great place where all who deserve victory encounter it. They can’t inspire the next generation of Olympians or show us how amazing humans really are when we’re not getting the unfiltered story.
This is unfortunate because the Olympics is the one thing that doesn’t need NBC’s “feel-good” narratives or the embellishments of the entertainment industry to be the demonstration of real perseverance. These athletes are the real deal, Celine Dion is in a world of auto-tune, Babe Ruth is in a world of HGH. Yet, that pure talent is lost when what could be unadulterated victories are hidden behind fluffy human-interest reporting. We don’t need NBC to make the Olympics exciting, it implicitly is. I want the Olympics to be the stronghold of authenticity I always thought it was. Until then, I’ll just have to cheerlead the deserving Team USA with the sad, underlying awareness of the narratives that NBC paid $775 million to broadcast.