American TV plays games with the Games

July 31, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

THE OLYMPICS were coming. The Olympics were coming.

So I was leaving.

In my former life as a sportswriter, I had covered many Olympics. I knew the drill. Every four years, it's like the return of the Beatles, except all the music is straight out of "Chariots of Fire." So, by the way, is the slo-mo instant replay.

Don't get me wrong: I like the Olympics. I just can't stand the hype.

So determined was I to get away from it all, I escaped to far-away, exotic Canada. I picked out Vancouver, which is, for you geography buffs, way on the other side of Canada.

Mostly, I wanted to get away from NBC. Meaning, away from John Tesh, away from jingoism, away from runaway commercialism. (I didn't take my Visa card to Canada because they take American Express.)

Vancouver is a wonderful city. Like most Canadian cities, it's clean and safe. It's also got water and mountains and late-night coffee bars.

Best of all, Vancouver has Canadian TV, which, remarkably, seems to get along without John Tesh. Canada's Olympic coverage is everything America's coverage is not: down-home, unhyped. The graphics are simple. The interviews are not breathless. It's like watching the MacKenzie brothers, without the back bacon.

Sure, you get to hear more about Canadian athletes than you might ordinarily enjoy. And it helps if you're deeply into kayaking, as many Canadians seem to be, which may suggest something essential about the country.

On the other hand, Canadian TV has this weird concept: that for real-life drama, nothing beats showing events as they actually occur.

The Olympics are too big to go live all the time. If the Olympics are a circus, they've got way more than three rings, or even the Olympian five rings.

You pick your spots. You go to where the action looks the hottest. You hope you get it right. If you don't, you've always got tape.

The way I understand it, America invented live TV. But somewhere the technology must have broken down. Either that or NBC is shamelessly manipulating its audience. And, you know, baby-faced Bob Costas looks so honest, too.

Here's how it works, if you're sitting in a hotel room that brings you Canadian and American TV. All you need is a clicker and the will to stay inside on a beautiful day to watch television.

I'd watch Mary Slaney run on Canadian TV. And then, many hours later, I'd see her hyped, and then beaten, on NBC, which already knew she was going to lose. I hate myself for saying this, but the buildup may have been just a wee bit cynical.

NBC never tells you what's live and what's videotape. But when they show you beach volleyball at 11: 30 p.m. and there's a bright sun shining overhead, you get the idea. They're either playing over the Arctic Circle or we're back on Memorex.

We know what's going on. The folks who run NBC pick out the great moments and then decide what we'd like to see. What we'd like to see, the TV boys have figured out, is Americans winning. We see Russian gymnasts falling off the bar. We see Americans hugging Bela Karolyi.

NBC brings us whitewater rafting and long features on brother and sister competitors, Americans of course. Both of them finish far out of the medal race. There's nothing wrong with the feature, except NBC already knew they were going to lose. And we didn't.

We can go on. And on. NBC sure has.

NBC didn't just decide to wrap itself in the flag. It's tattooed with Old Glory. The peacock is down to three colors -- red, white and blue.

Shameless nationalism? Pandering on a grand, Olympian scale?

Yeah, so what? Check the ratings. It's working.

You know, I thought we were a grown-up country. I thought we might just enjoy seeing the best athletes compete against one another. I thought, with the cold war over, that we might get past mindless nationalism.

Hey, just kidding. I knew better. I knew exactly how it would work, which is why I tried out the Canadians.

No wonder other countries are complaining. Daley Thompson, the great British decathlete, has been seen wearing a T-shirt, with a low-tech message. On the front, it says something about congratulating America for putting on a great Olympics -- great despite some glitches, great despite whoever planted a bomb to kill innocent people and tear a hole in the middle of the Olympics.

On the back of Thompson's T-shirt, it says: Pity about the TV coverage.

I read about it. I didn't see it on NBC.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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