The Fab Fortnight

By Franklin, Nancy | The New Yorker, August 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Fab Fortnight


Franklin, Nancy, The New Yorker


Watching the Beijing Olympics, for all the athletic and architectural spectacularity on display, has turned out to be more frustrating than I expected. What an opportunity this was--not, as is obvious, just for China but for the rest of the world, the people whose only chance to visit China would be through the lenses of NBC's cameras. Thirty-six hundred hours of sports and features filled the network and its cable sisters CNBC, MSNBC, USA, Telemundo, Oxygen, and Universal HD, and the Web--but I feel as though all I saw of China on TV was tourists walking on the Great Wall and correspondents eating, or not eating, "funny" food like fried scorpions. And yet NBC was so concerned about not resorting to stereotypes that it more or less banned pagodas and pandas, even though pandas are international currency, always welcome anywhere. I chalk the network's lack of adventurousness up to its being handcuffed--not painfully handcuffed but handcuffed nonetheless--by the Chinese authorities. It seems safe to say that if the country was willing to deny the athlete-activist Joey Cheek a visa--Cheek, one of the most appealing medallists of the 2006 Winter Olympics, has been involved in efforts to publicize China's Sudan connections--it probably felt completely unembarrassed about restricting the snoopier international media while they were in the country.

Still, the glimpses that we did get of Beijing were fascinating, right down to the gray-green haze that pervaded the city for the first few days of the Games (it brought out the amateur meteorologist in us, trying to figure out how much of it was humidity and how much was pollution). And, as for the relative lack of political coverage, if the world was going to accept the Games being in China it also had to accept certain conditions that went with that, and making a lot of noise about Tibet, or political prisoners, or Darfur just wasn't going to fly. As it happened, whatever vacuum there may have been in that regard was filled by the war that Russia started in Georgia on the day of the opening ceremonies--which also underscored for viewers why these biennial fortnights of greatness, of reaching for ideals, are precious; they are not the usual way the world works. NBC commentators often did find ways to take note of the hostly peculiarities, though you rarely heard the stories, so common during previous Olympics, about the Chinese factory-farming method of raising Olympians: taking children away from their parents at a young age and making them hew to virtually military regimens for years. In fact, during one night of the women's gymnastics competition, the commentator Al Trautwig went a little too far in the other direction, reflecting on how fortunate it was that a member of the Chinese team who, he said, had two years earlier begged her parents to let her quit the sport and come home hadn't been allowed to do so.

Even if you accept the compromises you have to make with yourself in order to enjoy the Beijing Olympics, NBC's prime-time coverage had more of a lowest-common-denominator feel than it used to. The network offered more hours than had been shown in all previous Summer Olympics combined, and yet, during the first week, only three people were ever seen in prime time: Michael Phelps and the beach-volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. (Stories about Dara Torres, the quadragenarian swimmer and mother of a toddler, abounded before the Games but petered out once Phelpsmania began.) In the four years since I was last forced to watch beach volleyball, I somehow have not found the maturity and wisdom to take it seriously as an Olympic sport, and, frankly, I doubt that NBC takes it seriously, either, except as a ratings grabber. Every time I turned on the TV, there was May-Treanor (the short one) and Walsh (the tall one), in those silly little Victoria's Ill-Kept Secret outfits. I now know more about these two women than I know about some of my relatives, including when Walsh met her husband; what's inscribed on her wedding ring (it flew off her finger during a match, and a fair amount of time was spent keeping viewers posted on the successful Search in the Sand); what the tattoo on May-Treanor's left shoulder signifies; and when the two of them plan to start families (soon after the Games are over). …

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