September 8, 2004

Qualms About Summer Games

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Twelve hundred ten hours is approximately 50 days — no, that’s not the amount of time you’re going to have to wait on the hockey line this year. It’s total coverage of the Athens Olympics that NBC aired over a 17-day period. Thanks to the $793 million NBC shelled out to buy the rights to air the games, the American viewing public was treated to a six-channel blitz of the Olympics for two straight weeks, while quality shows such as North Shore and Quintuplets were sadly put on hiatus.

Overall, 929 medals were awarded in 301 events, and I successfully watched about 15 of them, none of them live. For the first time ever, the American public could watch rhythmic gymnastics and modern pentathlon simultaneously. (Trivia time! Name all five events in the pentathlon. Winners will receive a copy of the 2004 men’s pentathlon final.)

While the Athens Games were the most entertaining Summer Olympics in recent memory, there are still some qualms I would like to address.

First — the over-hyping of swimmer Michael Phelps. It is the media’s duty to responsibly and fairly cover and report an event or person, and unfortunately, the media failed Phelps in this regard. The frenzy surrounding the 19-year old during the weeks leading up to the Games created a huge burden that was impossible for him to live up to. Every day from every media outlet, it was Phelps Central. By the start of the Games, I was ready to believe that not only would Phelps win gold in his eight swimming events, but he would also medal in field hockey, handball, and trampoline. But then the dream came crashing down.

In the 200-meter freestyle, which featured the showdown between America’s Chosen One and Aussie Ian Thorpe, Phelps swam a personal best in the final. However, this sordid effort was only good enough for bronze. Never mind that this wasn’t even one of Phelps’s strong events, he let the whole country down by not beating Thorpe. An entire generation of young swimmers was left crying in front of their televisions as Phelps stood on the lowest level of the podium, while we were forced to listen to “Advance Australian Fair.”

Ok, so maybe that’s taking it a little too far, but I was only trying to emulate the media’s unrealistic portrayal of Phelps. Clouded from view by the dashed hopes of the diehard swimming fans in America is the real accomplishment Phelps achieved at the Games: he won a record-tying eight medals. That feat took 17 races in eight days, a ridiculously busy swimming schedule.

After setting an Olympic record and taking gold in the 200-meter individual medley on August 19, Phelps had little over 30 minutes to prepare for the semifinals of the 100-meter fly. How did he respond to the quick turnaround? Another Olympic record in the span of under an hour. Maybe Phelps will only be remembered for failing to win seven gold medals, but I think we owe him a lot more than that.

On to Paul Hamm, who became the first American ever to win gold in the men’s gymnastics all-around competition. Hamm’s victory came into question when it was discovered that the judges gave bronze medallist Yang Tae-young a 9.9 start value instead of the correct 10.0 for his parallel bars routine. This extra tenth would have propelled Tae-young to the gold medal. The South Koreans tried to appeal the results, but were told that they should have first filed their appeal before the next rotation began during the competition.

Another media frenzy erupted, and Hamm was unfairly pressured by the president of the International Gymnastics Federation to give up his gold medal, in what would be considered “the ultimate demonstration of fair play.”

Way to pass the buck there, Mr. President. There is a reason there is no video replay for gymnastics. While the review of Tae-young’s routine showed that his start value was wrong, it also showed another huge mistake that would have actually lowered his score. In the parallel bars, a gymnast is only allowed to make three holds during the routine, and the tape clearly shows that Tae-young had four holds, an automatic 0.2-point deduction. You can’t fairly go back and review only one part of one routine. That would be like an NFL referee using video review to call a pass complete, but failing to realize that the receiver stepped out of bounds during the catch. This whole fiasco has evidently cost Hamm the thing he really wants–a place on the Wheaties box.

Finally, a brief word on the men’s Olympic basketball team. There has been much criticism over the “Dream Team’s” bronze-medal showing, and most of the blame is being unfairly placed on the players. Given the circumstances, I think it was unrealistic to expect the domination exhibited by the past Dream Teams. There is no way a group of players thrown together a few weeks before the Games can meld into a cohesive unit and adapt to a different style of basketball after playing a full NBA season.

This wasn’t our first choice team by a long shot, but don’t blame the players for having the audacity to want to play in the Olympics after so many other players passed. Blame Larry Brown for quitting on his team in the middle of the first round. Blame the selection committee, who brazenly ignored players that fit the mold of the international game, choosing instead to focus on marketing the NBA’s young stars. Maybe the disappointment will convince the committee to give Fred Hoiberg and Michael Redd a call in 2008.

There are so many other stories from Athens that this column could go on for several more pages. If you have a lot of time to kill, (say, on the hockey line?) drop me a note. I’ve got all 1210 hours of Olympic footage on 200 convenient video tapes or one DVD for only three payments of $39.99.

Archived article by Jonathan Auerbach