A critic’s first Olympics

A reluctant critic finds that astounding athletics and human drama make the Games TV gold

The Olympic cauldron is lit during the Danny Boyle-directed Opening Ceremony for the London Games.
Morry Gash/AP
The Olympic cauldron is lit during the Danny Boyle-directed Opening Ceremony for the London Games.

For decades, I managed to avoid ever watching the spectacle of pommel horses and Lycra and white teeth and rubbery thighs that are the summer and winter Olympics. I remained an Olympics virgin for as long as I could, pure and unschooled in the ways of synchronized swimming, Greco-Roman wrestling, and various apparatus.

The Olympics are MMEs, Massive Media Events, and so I dodged them when I had to, in the way we all dodge ubiquitous pop-up ads online or movie-ad campaigns billboarded on fast-food wrap. MMEs are publicity drone attacks, seeking you out where you live, and inevitably they drive me into hiding. (Confession: I still haven’t surrendered to the blitz that was “Avatar.”) When I’d detect an Olympics ad or news clip with a bug of interlocking rings lurking in the fringes of my vision, I’d avert my eyes and click. Or change the channel. Aversion of the eyes and a fast hand, they are good skills to have these days. There should be an Olympics category for them — Pitch Blocking, maybe, or Ad-minton.

So here I am, the TV critic who has succeeded in being on vacation or traveling for work whenever the Olympics have rolled around. I’m usually swimming, not watching swimming. But this summer, prompted by my Globe editors, I’ve submitted to the London Games on NBC, with all their attendant manipulations and edits and nonstop commercials, which borrow from the Olympics story line to plug everything from car insurance to cosmetics. (Coca-Cola is actually trying to convince us that if you’ve ever drunk Coke, you’ve helped every Olympic dream come true. My response: “[burp].”)

Jordyn Wieber, Gabrielle Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Alexandra Raisman, and Kyla Ross of the gold medal-winning US women’s gymnastics team.

And what I’ve found on this journey into the heart of excess is something unexpected. I’m loving the Olympics — the actual Olympics, that is, not Bob Costas or Matt Lauer or John McEnroe or Ryan Seacrest, whose facile, happy-gnome, tween-demo approach is out of place in the world of high-performance sports. And not the ritualistic cycle of lash and backlash enacted by Twitterers and the media, most of it fixated on the fact that — surprise — NBC is using time-delay and trying to sculpt an American-centric show out of random, copious hours of footage. Whether the low-rated NBC, in its ongoing identity crisis, has been making the right calls or not, I’ll leave that to the pundits and their verbal pentathlons.

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But the essence of the Olympics is lovely. So many of the physical achievements are astounding, maybe not beach volleyball, with its stilted rhythm and BBQ atmosphere, but certainly the gymnastics, the diving, the swimming. And the human dramas can enhance them — when they aren’t exaggerated with artificial network “human interest” melodrama. The NBC featurettes on the competitors that I saw during the week weren’t bad — not nearly as drawn-out and jiggered as the ones that clog up an ordinary episode of a reality show such as “American Idol.” They provided the subtext to the athletic action. And I’d rather get caught up in the stories of the Olympic players who have such dedication and skill — even Missy “By Golly By Gosh” Franklin — than cheap extroverts like, say, Emily Maynard, a.k.a. “The Bachelorette.” Sorry NeNe, but no, no.

One of the entrees for me, coming to the Olympics as a Martian, was during the synchronized diving competition. It was a revelation, both as a bodily feat and as a triumph of camerawork and audio. Two young Chinese men did a reverse 3½, leaping into somersaults, and it was too fast to understand. But then the cameras unpacked that flash of harmonic movement for us, so we could see the springs, the tucks, the rotations, and the sleek entries into the water. With the benefits of slow-motion replay, side perspective shots, and the godlike view from above, the dive became a study in the potential of our bodies and the power of cooperation. The divers were almost mirror images. Later, hearing one American diver above the pool mutter “Ready,” and his partner say, “Yup,” brought me into an intimacy with their positioning and their apprehension. That was drama.

Another entry point for me was the gymnastics, the men’s and the women’s. The NBC talk machine brought me into a Wikipedia-deep understanding of the art of the sport, the vault and the horse and the floor exercises, and it also clued me into the story lines as it has all along — this one’s going for a record, that one’s father died, another one is newly engaged. I forgot most of the gymnasts’ names quickly, but I felt for them as they moved along the mat, saw their personal drive propelling them forward and up and around against gravity. The camera showed bodies swinging over the horse, like Spirograph shapes from above, all that willpower fed into a geometric manifestation. I saw human origami. That moment when flying gymnasts land and wonder for a microsecond if they are standing in place, that was drama.

And there was no resisting the sweet young adult novel that was the women’s team dominating, the exultant Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Aly Raisman in red and glitter. They could have been from Freedonia; their pride was universal.


My Olympics undertaking was almost a bust early on, when I took in Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. This is why I’ve stayed away, I thought. The event was out-Las-Vegas-ing Las Vegas, it was Andrew Lloyd Webber and Salvador Dali co-teaching a British history course, it was fragmented and bloated and numbing. London tourism bureau: Fail. The Queen, a puff of pink, presided like an ice cube.

Morry Gash/AP
The Olympic rings lit up the stadium during the Opening Ceremony.

But after the Parade of Nations, with troops of kids photographing themselves as they circled, David Bowie’s bittersweet “Heroes” blasting in the 80,000-seat stadium, I got interested. What can I say: There is something about torches, no matter how high-tech they are, that speaks to an ancient corner of my consciousness. The lighting of the torches in the darkness felt like a ceremony meant to conjure up some eternal spirit of competition, as each flame joined together in a cauldron of spirit. I was persuaded, the sucker imagined by whoever once chose to use the promethean symbol for the Olympics. It was as if we were all at a summer campfire for a few minutes, hearing ghost stories about seasons past, winners and losers gone by.

I’ve met people who could care less about the Oscars and the Emmys, and I am usually mystified. Underneath the months of studio and network self-promotion, beyond the Hollywood self-love and competition, there are a bunch of knockout performances, moving stories, transcendent scripts. There is a world of bests and greats behind awards ceremonies, if you’re willing to wade through the commercial filler and the ego fluffing. And now I can see that, on a much larger level, the Olympics operate in the same way. If you are allergic to hype, if cultural cacophony gives you hives, you need to look for those moments when the Olympics manage to shine through “The Olympics” on NBC. You need to find that extreme close-up of a swimmer’s face before she lurches across the pool into her future.

You have to do some digging when it comes to this 17-day pileup of sport and mastery, pomp and padding, but if you do, you’ll find that there’s Olympic gold awaiting viewers, too.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him
on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.