Friday, July 27, 2012
What will be the top sporting story of the 2012 Olympics? It's not an easy question; I will give five possible views that I see being likely to emerge, and where I think it will end up.
5) The American women (and especially the gymnastics team)--I think the big USA story this time could be the overall competitive leadership, and frequent dominance, of American women in major sports. In basketball, there will be no doubt, soccer should be a good story, track and field appears unusually strong, Serena Williams should have an Olympic triumph of definitive nature, and gymnastics looks primed for a US breakout performance. What I am less certain about is the expectations we should have/may have in swimming and diving, which by contrast could highlight--
4) Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte. This will be the story that the network will beat us over the head with, and it shows the possibility of being as truly dramatic as Phelps' successful quest for eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics. There's no question that Phelps will show up, time after time, so the pressure, and the opportunity, is all upon Lochte. If he can bring real, consistent danger of toppling Phelps a bit, he will make a huge name for himself.
3) The multiplicity of countries bearing world-leading talent. Although Americans are competitive in a wide range of sports, the story may be more about all the events in which we didn't win this time, entirely due to the quality, and breadth, of the competition. There will be a strong Chinese performance in a number of skill sports (table tennis being the clearest example), the Japanese will have their moments, and the Australians will find some areas in which they can excel. Do not overlook the significance of the Jamaican sprinters and the Ethiopian and Kenyan distance runners. When it comes to sports like weightlifting, fencing, boxing, wrestling, the winners come from all over. Europeans (and we can define them as competitors from European Union states, plus former Soviet ones) will win more medals than any other continent's, I'll wager. Above all, this will be the United Kingdom's opportunity to show what they can do, with large-scale funding and commitment. This multinational storyline will be showcased from the beginning on network TV, starting with the opening ceremony, and it could stick.
2) The USA Men's Basketball Team--It would become a really big story if USA did not win the championship; I haven't seen the odds quoted, but I would guess that the chances are about 1 in 3 that it will happen--it's hardly farfetched. There was a lot of talk in the last month about how this team was as good as the Magic/Michael/Bird Dream Team of 1992. This squad has no need to be timid about its level of talent, and I don't even think it will be a big problem how the team develops. The threat to certain victory is the quality of the opposition, particularly from Spain and Argentina. Besides some NBA-star level talent, these teams have players well-suited to the Olympics game, which I would describe as "rough big men who can hit from the outside".
The USA team, for all its flair, scoring ability, and strength, does not have that kind of player beyond LeBron James; a lot of the pressure will be on him, and it will be another big downer on LBJ's current good vibe if the team falls short. The game which is most likely to work against us is to clog it up, play dirty-- (besides lots of grabbing underneath, diving, groaning), and rely on good ball-handling and some timely outside shooting. Timely means high percentage 3-pointers off plays underneath, and preventing turnover-driven fast breaks. If the USA gets into trouble, you will know it when they need for some reason to rely on Chris Paul as point guard and pre-rookie Anthony Davis as shot-blocker. That would mean the LeBron/Carmelo/Kobe/Kevin Durant shooting gallery has failed to produce the easy victory, and it's getting dangerous.
1) The English are big, fat cheaters. I viewed the Olympics on British TV's in the year 2000. I recommend the experience of watching the Olympics on something-other-than-American TV, once in their lifetime, to all Americans (I'll even count watching the Winter Olympics). It broadens the mind. One thing I noticed during that experience, time after time, was the excitement, followed by the disappointment, of hearing the local competitors finishing fourth. (In America, they would low-play such results in prime time.) The British love to compete, and they show up to do so in basically every sport, but they are particularly dying to win, and they are thinking this might be the time to do it. I see them lining up every possible advantage this time--all within the rules, mind you. It is entirely normal that the host country gain a higher share of the medals than it usually does; I am talking about something more substantial in result, and about a pattern of just nosing out everyone this time, getting that little edge in the scoring, or whatever. And that becoming a perception that a lot of countries get, and some of the teams going a bit public with that feeling.
So, I don't know what that countdown was all about, but for me, the biggest story will be 2)--partly because I will have more access to TV in the last week of the competition; in US event coverage, I would guess the biggest story in general coverage (from the US, at least) will be 4), though it should be 5) or 3). Do I think the English are "big, fat cheaters"? Definitely not, though I do predict it will be discussed: There will be, as Pink Floyd might have described it, "a lot of it about".
The Olympics and Affairs Among Nations
Most of us lived through the Cold War politicization of the Olympics--particularly the Summer Olympics--as USA vs. USSR, so the concept of Olympics as symbolic carriers of nationalistic destiny should not be unfamiliar. In fact, it has been present almost since the earliest days and, despite being so contrary to the concept of the original Greek Olympics, the peculiar nation-state focus of the Olympics remains the greatest drawback to an exceptional global event.
It is no accident that the modern-day Olympics organization as a contest of states basically was an Anglo-French project which the Americans picked up quite easily and quickly. History tells us that the basic concept of the modern nation-state was developed first by the French, then, after the Spanish experiment of global empire flamed to glory and consumed itself, was perfected by the British. The Americans drew upon the Europeans' initial innovations and drew them out and broadened them (the Aussies use a similar approach, but do not have quite the population base of the USA). The British and French states used the advantages their precocious national development gave thm in the forms of superior industry and organization to conquer most of the world, but the torch passed.
The Olympic history follows that pattern, but it moved more quickly, and the "power" spread more broadly. The English and French have receded from the front ranks as it became US-USSR, with the East German and Cuba variations, and now China emerges as a leader. The French may need to wait for another shot (I would be particularly interested to see their take on this year's event, to see whether the jealousy oozes out), but this is the English (or British, to be accurate) chance to re-establish itself; they aim to be the international sport beauty pageant's version of "Queen for a Day" this year.
In terms of international/Olympic relationships, I don't want to dwell too much on Mitt Romney's rude crashing of the party; the Summer Olympics bring innumerable visitors of all types who must be tolerated--it's simply the price you pay for hosting. Romney's actions speak for themselves, and they speak quite clearly that he is a novice in international affairs with no sense of finesse whatsoever.
A River Runs Through It
When looking at a map of the event locations (I like this one best), two things are particularly noticeable about the venues: First is the huge, transformative development of the Olympic Village, with the Olympic Stadium, in East London. The selection of the most rundown section of the city to be the locus of construction, creation of permanent value, and jobs, was a particular accomplishment that I think goes to the credit of the Labor governments headed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It will be interesting to see how close those two are to the event itself, whether their role in securing the bid (Lord Coe--the Olympic middle-distance runner and loyal member of the current ruling party--will get most of the credit for that) and doing the planning will be recognized.
The second is the ingenious use of London landmarks for events all around town. The main axis along which so many of them lie near is the Thames River and its West-to-East sweep through the heart of the city. I'm particularly impressed by such decisions as the inclusion of the Triathlon event itself (to be held in Hyde Park), the Mall and Hampton Court Palace (for Road cycling, which, with British Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins competing, could be the single event which draws the greatest interest from locals), Wimbledon for tennis, Wembley for "football", Lord's Cricket Ground for archery (well, if they couldn't get the addition of cricket...), and the "North Greenwich (O2) Arena" a/k/a the Millennium Dome for rhythmic gymnastics and the basketball finals.
As is often the case with London, the nearest bridge is the landmark reference point for most of the events. The Olympic Village itself is one exception, as it's removed some miles from the Thames, but the planning of the village has emphasized a stream, the River Lea (also known as the Lee), which runs through its center and on down to the Thames. I believe that its reclamation was another major accomplishment in the planning.
With those locales, getting around could be a lot of fun. OK, not so much fun going to Wembley, but if you are visiting and remember one simple rule, it could be all right: do not, under any conditions and no matter what they say, drive your car to any Olympic venue! Find another way to get there: train (best), underground or bus (if you've got all day), walk (if you're near--distances can be very long), taxi (for a bit of color), or something along the river, if you can find it.
I'm going to be curious how the two-wheeled conveyances--bicycle and motorcycle--play out in this context. Bicycling has become a large-scale endeavor in London, for very good reasons, so if the bikes can be secured properly, it could be a very good experience to ride to the scene. Motorcycles are the ones that really have the potential for a breakthrough; literally, they are the only things that can break through some of the traffic jams, so they will be the vehicle of choice for support units (and potentially for high-ranking passengers, in urgent situations).
The other thing about London, of course, is to be prepared for rain to occur at any time.