Monday, August 11, 2008

The proxy war is on channel 11

Indifference rapidly turns to rabid partisanship as soon as the Olympics offers its first big moment, and it looks like that's happened, so let's pump our fists and do a little "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

In case you missed it, some French swimmers claimed they were going to "smash" the Americans in the 4 x 100 freestyle. (Imagine that, French bragging.) The race turned out to be spectacular, with the USA winning, so in your Gallic face, monsieur. Maybe you can win some gold medals if they had a smugness competition or a smoking marathon. We know the French could win the sprints if they could just have Germans chasing them. But mon dieu, enough cheap slaps at Pierre.

(And in case you missed it and you want to see it, NBC has set up an excellent website to feed video. You can get live streams and archived stuff. Go to the site here, and if you get a message that you need to install "Silverlight" that's cool, don't be fearful.)

It's a funny thing that happens when the Olympics starts. I can go from a complete lack of interest to the edge of obsession in about two days. All of a sudden I'm watching beach volleyball. (Looks like fun, but how did that become an Olympic sport? They don't even drink any beer while they're playing, so it's not very authentic.) And then I am rooting for some total stranger to break some record, or win some number of medals, and a week ago I could not have cared less. Shortly after that, I become an expert in dozens of arcane sports and am prepared to debate the importance of the #3 man in the 4-man bobsled or why the US doesn't produce great pentathlon winners or why some Swede will never win the pole vault because his run up to the pit is lackluster. Before you know it, the network turns some little known gymnast or skier into a famous face - a fame that has a short shelf life these days, but gets a prominent place on the shelf while it lasts - and I can add some "up close and personal" facts, usually heart-warming, to my stock of essential Olympic knowledge.

This Olympics, of course, is more symbolic than most. It's not far under the surface that it shapes up as a chest pounding exercise with the Chinese hoping to show that (a) they can host it, and (b) they can win more medals than the Americans. (Tally this morning: China = 14 medals, USA = 12. ) If all sports are symbolic of warfare, this particular set of games has the potential to produce some sort of new world pecking order. (China has clearly surged into the lead in the "smoggiest country" competition, so they've got that to be proud of right off the bat.) Is the US on a slippery slope to also-ran status in the world? Is China the new big man on campus? These games will shed some light on that topic, so pay attention.

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