Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation

How the civilized world watches the Olympics
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We've got the Olympics in us

Oh, my dear American friends, my heart goes out to you. By the sound of things (and the sound of things is carrying all the way across the Atlantic), you're having a tough old time with your television coverage of the Olympics. NBC appears once more to be treating its viewers as emotionally stunted simpletons who have mislaid the instructions for their internet machines. Our own Eric Freeman has written about how they are essentially de-sportifying the Games in order to turn them into just another prime time network show. (Ryan Seacrest's name gets a well-deserved exclamation mark.) As if to underline the point, Deadspin's Dvora Meyers makes NBC's gymnastics broadcasts sound hideous.

And then there is the notorious delayed coverage, where you're not even given the option of watching an event live, unless you have the right TV package and a tolerance for web streams of dubious quality. With the money NBC have spent on the rights, you'd think it wouldn't have been beyond them to bung the IOC a few hundred million dollars extra for the power to dictate the actual start times. (Think about it: Phelps vs. Lochte vs. such-and-such at 1am local time; sunrise over the beach volleyball; horses with headlights.) Chuck in another half billion and they could have made the athletes compete all over again three hours later for the benefit of viewers on the west coast.

Mirabile dictu, your correspondent is well out of the psychedelic peacock's splattering range; to me, Bob Costas is just some guy interviewing Larry David in a Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD extra. In Ireland, we have RTE, who are doing a decent enough job, especially given their difficult financial position (although they can still afford a canoeing analyst with his own phone). But most of my time has been spent watching the BBC, who have dedicated two of their main stations and both of their HD channels to the Games from one end of the day to the other. Better still, if you press the red button on your remote, you gain access to ...

Ah, look, I won't go into it. It wouldn't be fair. I feel that were I to describe how wonderfully, wonderfully wonderful the BBC's service is, it would amount to taunting. And I'm not that kind of person. Really I'm not. Believe me, I feel your pain. There but for the grace of my non-emigrating ancestors go I, you know? I love you and I wouldn't want to add to your woes. And listen, I mean, it's not very good anyway. No, seriously! That "wonderfully, wonderfully wonderful" stuff? I was just joking around. A joke! Um. It's not that good. It's probably no better than NBC, when I think about it, probably not that much better. I mean, it's okay. I can't deny it's okay. But that's all. Maybe a little better. Pretty decent. Some of the time. Good, like. In a manner of speaking. Quite good. It's quite very good. It's ... it's ...

Oh, who am I kidding? It's FANTASTIC. Any time there's something going on, whatever sport it is, you can watch it live. The coverage is uninterrupted: there's no "we have to leave the badminton to go to the showjumping arena", and this being the BBC, there are no commercials. Sometimes there's no commentary; when there is, it's usually well-informed and (half the battle, this) tolerable. Best of all, it's on your actual telly, so there's no buffering, no stuttering, no freezing, no sudden pixelation, no smashed laptops. Even the menus are well designed. And thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded (cheers, British licence fee payers!), it's free.

There's something from the London Times writer Simon Barnes on the 1992 Summer Olympics that I once quoted elsewhere on this site in a different context, but it's worth reprising here:

A lot of the venues were grouped around Montjuic, and there was a media bus service that made a perpetual Dante-esque circle around this mountain-top, stopping at each sporting destination as it went. I was on the bus, commuting, perhaps, from the judo to the pingpong via the Greco-Roman wrestling, when I realised that I could get off the bus at any point, walk into any hall or onto any sports field, and witness the most important day in somebody's life: the few minutes for which all his previous life had been a preparation.

The BBC's Olympics service is, perhaps, not quite the same thing as the Barcelona bus. To actually be present amidst the shouts, the squeaks, the sobs and the smells of Olympic competition is something even the magic red button can't yet offer. But by God, it'll do as a substitute. Half of the spell the Games cast on us is the knowledge—even if you don't watch a minute of it—that there is this singular concentration of events that matter, as much as anything that doesn't really matter can. (I again quote Barnes: "It is the mattering itself that matters.") Never has this been as apparent to those of us not fortunate enough to be there than now, when all of London is virtually opened up to us.

It makes the way the Olympics have been covered in years past seem primitive. Which is perhaps unfair. The BBC, for one, has always done a terrific job with the Olympics, never sinking to the depths of condescension in which NBC seems permanently stationed. They've always gone in for live unbroken dawn-to-dusk transmission (or through-the-night, depending on which time zone the Games are happening in), and have admirably dealt with the necessary task of being picky at the smörgåsbord. But even so, the view of proceedings offered to us has always been restricted to what the producers have decided should go into the programme. Even if they chose well, you'd still be at their mercy.

But now, you can plot your own course through the Olympics. Or if that sounds too organised for your liking, you can wander around the venues and allow your course to plot itself. You are guided by nothing but your own heart. On their main channels, the BBC are giving the whole thing a more British slant than usual. There's a relentless positivity to it, to the point where it can be like overhearing some kind of group therapy session ("You're brilliant"; "Not as brilliant as you"; "We're all brilliant!"). It's understandable and actually kind of lovely; if ever there was an occasion to get giddy about sport and your own nation's sportspeople, it's when your country hosts the Olympics. But it's a blessing to able to step outside it—even to step outside the Irish bias of RTE. There's so much to see besides, and it impresses itself upon you all the more for the fact that you can explore at will and find it all for yourself. You find yourself trusted to be moved or intrigued, delighted or disgusted, according to your own tastes and feelings.

I am, of course, cheering on my compatriots (I'm paying more attention to sailing than I usually would). Most of all, though, I'm getting my greatest lesson in the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Sports. The handball, the fencing, the water polo, the dressage, the diving, the supreme Bradley Wiggins, the velodrome that's so quick that it itself will soon start breaking world records, the Polish table tennis player who holds the ball in the crook between her lower arm and what little part of her forearm she was born with, Ki Bo-Bae and her fellow Seoul assassins (badass despite—or hey, because of—their early '80s Elvis Costello specs): it all matters, it's all fabulous, and it can all be seen. It's how the Olympics were meant to watched.

It's all a bit overwhelming, actually. Thanks to the BBC, I will surely have drowned in sport by next weekend. And as my coffin is lowered into the ground accompanied by the theme from Sportsnight, they will all say, "It's how he would have wanted to go..."

...Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot for a moment there. The NBC thing. Right. It was totally insensitive of me to go on like that and ... Ah, no, don't cry! Please, no, look, it's not all good, I swear. There's one big problem with being able to see anything as it's happening, live, right now, not deferred, right bloody now. No matter how hard you try, you can't see everything. God might be able to afford multiple decoders and recorders, but we can't all be supreme deities, no matter how hard we try. This has always been the case, of course. But once, you could blame the TV company. Now, you can only blame yourself. No matter what you're watching, no matter how great it is, no matter how much it compels you, you know there's a chance you're missing something equally splendid on another stream. It's in your power to switch over, but then you'll kick yourself for abandoning what you're currently watching. It's almost too much. There's so much sport packed into just two-and-a-bit weeks; you long for it to go on for ages, to allow everything to unfold at a less frantic pace, for every event to have its moment. But it won't. So as much as you're intoxicated, you're tantalised. What began as a wondrous gift becomes a source of melancholy. It's a terrible problem to have. Such a terrible, terrible problem.

There. Better now?


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