Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Different Olympics

by Ben Howard

I’ve been watching a different Olympics than you.

Sure, we’ve been watching the same sports being contested by the same participants. We’re all watching the same medals being awarded for the same acts of athletic prowess performed on the same mountain, or in the same arena, but I’m experiencing an entirely different narrative than the one you’re seeing.

In the past, I’ve always watched the Olympics on NBC. This was part convenience, since I had cable, and part necessity, since they weren’t available anywhere else. But this year I’ve been watching all of the events online. I don’t get to watch them live (the twin necessities of work and sleep make that an impossibility), but I’m avoiding spoilers and watching them on replay when I get home.

It didn’t take long to realize that these Olympics were different from the ones I’d experienced before in my life. You see, the online feed that NBC has made available is not the same thing that you see them broadcast in prime time, or for that matter, any time. No, the online feed is from the Olympic Broadcasting Service, and it’s the raw footage that NBC then cuts into exciting, TV-friendly segments before adding the spice of it’s own commentators and pre-produced human interest stories. They then bake it at 425 for an hour before serving it to a ready public in prime-time.

With the exception of an hour or two on Monday night, I have seen none of this finished product.

While you’ve been treated to Scott Hamilton and Mary Carrillo and Bob Costas’s losing fight with pink-eye, I’ve been listening to a series of announcers with vaguely-European accents give a dry account of how each competitor is doing on the World Cup scene this season. While you’re watching the runs of the top Americans and a handful of medal contenders, I’m watching all 40 luge contestants even though only five have a chance of winning. And while you’re learning the heart-warming tale of how a mother helped her daughter to Olympic glory, I’m watching silently as a Zamboni smooths out the speed skating rink while ambient LMFAO plays through the stadium speakers. 

You have the drama. I have the raw totality.

And of course, this difference in context means we’ve gleaned totally different narratives from the games thus far. As far as I can tell, from NBC’s point of view the big stories over the first three days were the debut of 15-year old figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya and her amazing ability to make all the joints in my body shriek in terror simultaneously. Beyond that, the top stories are probably the gold medals of Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson in snowboarding, or perhaps the disappointment of skier Bode Miller.

In contrast to that, I’ve watched four biathlon races and can spell Norwegian legend Ole Einar Bjorndalen’s name without looking it up. I’ve seen a Venezuelan skier wipeout on a very treacherous downhill course and witnessed how loud the fans get when they’re cheering for a luger from India. I’ve also witnessed an event called the skiathlon which I can only describe as organized race marching, and it’s exactly as weird as it sounds.

Both narratives are obviously real, neither is in any way a work of fiction. When we look back at the history books in twenty years to see who won and who lost, we will both recognize the names and the order in which they’re found. But you will have memories of American announcers and tear-jerking voice overs about overcoming adversity; I’ll be remembering that Americans aren’t very good at most of the sports I watched and the weird way the downhill announcer said “Russian Trampoline” like a hundred times.

It’s no secret that context shapes our narrative, but it’s jarring when it’s made so starkly clear, when you can really see the seams in how the stories are made. The raw data is the same. Same races, same footage, same contestants, but then everything changes and shifts. We choose our ingredients and throw them into a blender so that we each get something unique.

So which one is the right narrative? How does one determine the accurate context? Who wins when we talk about what really happened in Sochi? Which perspective is really true?

And this is the crux of the issue that so many of us have with the world, and with life, and with faith; this need to totalize and absolutize the experience. Somewhere within us is this desire, my desire, to make you replace your reality with mine, my desire to tell you that the real Winter Olympics don’t involve the gold, the silver, and the bronze, but the deafening cheers for an Indian luger who finished 37th out of 39, and the heartbreak of a Canadian biathlete who crashed while leading his race. It’s my desire to force you to believe that this is the real story, and that your experience was a fantasy, that gets us into so much trouble. This is what destroys communities, breaks relationships, and ultimately consumes our good intentions from within.

But this doesn’t have to be. The real truth, when you dig down underneath all the commentary and all the context, is that neither of our stories are the real story, because the real story is far more complex and intricate and complete than we can grasp or tell. I have my Olympics and you have yours, but both of them are drawn from the same river of reality. And while, in twenty years, you may remember a Russian figure skater and I a Norwegian skier, we’ll still be sharing the same event. 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 

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Image Credits:
Image #1 via Wikipedia
Image #2 via Christian Jansky
Image #3 via Tor Atle Kleven
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