Monday, August 25th, 2008...1:59 am

Olympic Thoughts

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Watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympics was a bittersweet moment for me (and it had nothing to do with learning that the fireworks were fake!). I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed tuning in each day over the past few weeks that I’m sad to see it end. Perhaps the amazing accomplishments and worldwide interest in the Beijing games will lead to a revival for the Olympics in future years. Or perhaps this will be as good as it ever gets and we’ll all look back generations from now and remark how the Beijing Olympics were the best games ever.

I was lucky enough to spend time at the Winter Olympics in Torino in 2006. I had a blast. I attended the Opening Ceremonies and scalped tickets to a ton of cool events, saw American win gold medals (the flying tomato) and got to party with people from all over the world. But the Italians weren’t all that enthralled by the games (it was soccer season) and there seemed to be very little meaning to the whole thing. It was almost as if the Olympics was just a commercial tournament that was put together for tourists, sponsors and to make a few bucks for the organizers.

But these Olympics games were different from the start. Leading up to the games I was curious to see what would happen, and it wasn’t the sporting events that I was curious about. I had read about the air pollution, logistical issues, threats of major protests, boycotts and Chinese censorship. A few months before the games a major and deadly earthquake devastated central China and it seemed to put even more of a damper on the games. The world was planning to show up on China’s doorstep and nobody (even those that had a stake in the games) seemed to know for certain what kind of hosts they would be. As for the sports, I find it hard to get all that excited to watch sports that I don’t give a damn about and don’t follow regularly. I guess I’m just not synchronized for swimming.

I was in Mexico the weekend of the opening ceremonies and didn’t really have the patience to watch the Spanish broadcasts of the opening events. Then I heard about the tragic and random murder of men’s volleyball coach Huge McCutcheon’s father-in-law. It seemed as though these games might turn into the disaster that many had feared and dreaded.

But when I returned to NYC there already seemed to be some good buzz about the games. From there, the athletes took over and their performances were so good and so captivating that it had everybody I know tuning in and talking about it. For a few blissful days, Phelps and Bolt, Nadia and Kobe (Little Flying Warrior) took the spotlight at the water cooler and replaced Brett Farve’s work status, Lohan’s sexual orientation and pointless election banter about Barry O!

Here were my favorite memories…

This couldn’t have been scripted better if it was a cheesy Disney movie. An innocent and likeable star, a prestigious and time-honored record up for grabs, a coach who is part jedi part drill sergeant and a mother who puts just about any cheerleader to shame.

Phelps played the part to perfection. He won with unbelievable natural skill, sheer determination and bold passion. He had trusty sidekicks in the relay that helped him bring home the Gold. It seemed like everybody was on Phelps “team” and both his teammates and competitors seemed more interested in witnessing his quest for eight golds than to stand in his way. His comeback victory in the butterfly by .01 seconds seemed to prove that the Olympic gods were on his side.

Phelps is like the modern day Chuck Norris with tales of his dominance a dime a dozen. His hands are as big as dinner plates. His size 16 feet are like fins. He eats more than a stoned Kobayashi. His dad is a Sea Urchin and couldn’t be at the games because he lives in the ocean.

In just one week Phelps entered athletic hero lore with the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and was being anointed as the greatest Olympic athlete ever until…

Usain Bolt
About four months ago my company, Sportsvite, signed a deal with Puma to have the shoe company sponsor the running section on our website. Part of the sponsorship was to promote their track star, a Jamaican sprinter named Usain Bolt. A few months later Bolt broke the world record in the 100 meters and I mentioned in the office that we might just have a rising star on Sportsvite. Little did I know what a star Bolt was about to become.

The track & field events were on tape delay so unfortunately I already knew the result when I watched many of Bolt’s races. Fortunately, it didn’t matter because you have to see him run to believe it. Bolt is so much faster than everybody else that he either looks like he’s jogging (which he often is) or it looks like he’s moving in fast forward DVR mode. Bolt isn’t a machine and doesn’t run technically. He’s a young, playful and confident Jamaican who seems to be awfully irie before and after races and sometimes even during the race. Sports Business reporter Darren Rovell pondered if Bolt slowed down so he would only beat the record by a little so that he can continuously beat his own record in the future. The fact that theory may be plausible is unbelievable!

The Redeem Team
The name “Redeem Team” is so bad I love it.
Thankfully though, the US finally righted the ship and dominated with pride and passion in regaining the Gold Medal after pathetic showings in the last Olympics and World Championships. It was actually easy to root for them. Kobe, Lebron and D-Wade played like the best three players on Earth. Young guys like Chris Paul and Deron Williams took another step towards superstardom. The competition is stiff and Spain, Argentina and Greece can probably field formidable NBA teams. That makes the tournament even better. The NBA and USA basketball made a smart move by investing in the Olympic program. It’s great to see the best players in the world playing together and trying so hard. None of them have to be there, none of them are making millions directly from their dedication to USA Basketball. But it was easy to tell how much they love playing basketball and how much even rich and famous athletes are honored and excited to represent their country in the Olympics.

Races and Head to Head Competitions
Many of The Olympic sports are pretty damn random except for the Modern Pentathlon of course. It’s not like I’m tuning in to ESPN on a weeknight to watch a Diving tournament followed by a team handball competition. To avoid my imagination getting the best of me, I stick to watching sports that are easy to comprehend. Races = good. Their quick, make sense and you can pick a guy and root for them. Even if it’s not close you can root for the swimmer to beat the World Record line! The announcer just has to set the scene and give you the background and you can figure out the rest on your own. Team Sports = good. Volleyball, Basketball, even water polo are easy to watch and become engaged in the action while rooting for your teams. Their usually is a favorite and an underdog and national pride makes the matches even more exciting.

Following this paradigm, I would watch any sport that was easy to figure out. Ping Pong on CNBC. Enthralling. Never have I ever rooted for a Korean to fend off a Mongolian!

Bela Karolyi
Why can’t they let him announce every sport. He’s amazing. Wouldn’t it be great to see him provide commentary for a mid-season Knicks vs. Raptors game at the Garden!

Stuff that was whack
I can’t spend a lot of time on the wackness since it was so bad but my short list. Cris Colinsworth and Costas, all sports with judges, diving routines, the photo highlights on sportcenter, tape delays, the Chinese gymnasts, passing the baton, all medals being worth the same value, the two wrestlers who forfeited their medals for unsportsmanlike conduct, tennis, softball team losing.

A few other thoughts.

From a media perspective, I thought NBC did a pretty good job with the games. They turned it into a worldwide entertainment event that everybody wantecd to watch. I was amused a few times to get into conversations with girls who would never be sports fans but knew every single detail and factoid about the Olympics (Phelps is 6’4″ but has the legs of a 6′ foot man!). It didn’t matter if I knew the results, every night when I got home I turned on the Olympics. They do a solid job of keeping people interested and showing multiple events and editing the tape-delayed stuff to make it fun to watch. In addition, they had coverage on multiple channels so I was able to find something good to watch at any time of the day. In an increasingly fragmented and distracted world, the Olympics are a global event that grabs attention at a mass level.

I wasn’t that impressed with the NBC Olympics website. Yes, it was comprehensive with information and video coverage but for the most part there was little reason to go to their website instead of the normal sites you visit to receive sports updates and information. NBC didn’t allow you to embed or share videos so wasn’t much viral pull. In fact I don’t remember receiving an email, link or video clip from their site the entire time so obviously they didn’t make their website relevant enough. I would have loved to get more inside footage and blogs from athletes, been able to get alerts when cool things were happening live and have more of a community that would be able to shed some light on some of the more random sports and events in the Olympics.

As for the tape delayed stuff, I don’t think it was that big of an issue. They should definitely show everything live for the die-hard fans and I’m sure they will in future Olympics (hey, HowieHoops woke up at 2am to watch LIVE the US win gold against a team they had beaten by 37 a week earlier.) but I don’t think that matters for most people. The average viewer wants to watch the Olympics on their big-screen television when they get home from work. They want to be whisked away to an Olympic world where everything is perfect and they can have heroes if only for a few weeks. NBC doe a good job of that.

Finally, my thoughts on China. Perhaps, I’m a global optimist but I thought the Olympics were great and China was wonderful. They hosted the party and while it could get weird to be in their home at times, it was pleasant and everyone got along. I’ve been to a few Olympic cities after the games were played there including Sydney, Barcelona and Atlanta. All those cities greatly benefited from the infrastructure and jolt that the Olympics provide. Yeah, it would be better if they spent all their resoruces helping their people overcome poverty and opression but that’s not always how the world works. Insteead places like the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube become iconic stadium’s overnight and that leads to change or more development.

It’s apparent China is going to be a world power. Actually, it already is one. They have 20% of the humans in this world. Yeah, they might not be exactly like the West but it’s things like sports that bring people together and if we can all like each other it will be a lot easier to overcome differences. It was kind of mind boggling and surreal to see the Chinese cheer for Kobe and Lebron with such knowledge and excitement. Is an NBA China that far off? And once we get accustomed to dealing with China on a sport and entertainment level we’ll maybe it will be a bit easier to understand their way of life. maybe.

I read lots of griping form journalists about censorship, detained protestors and a concerted fraudulent front by the Chinese that everything was just peachy. I’m sure all that’s true but that is how China operates and the rest of the world needs to figure out how to deal with it. I bet China also made huge concessions that made them a bit uncomfortable at times as well. Hopefully, everybody was able to see that the other side isn’t all that evil and will allow for more collaboration and success in the future. Yeah, we do need to figure out how to get China to invest more in personal freedom and human rights and hopefully we’ll be able follow up on the momentum of these games to accomplish more important real world challenges. Isn’t that what the Olympics are really all about anyway.