Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Olympic Dilemma: Turn Off the Picture or Turn Off the Sound?

The Olympic Dilemma:
 Turn Off the Picture or Turn Off the Sound?

I’ve looked forward to the Olympics throughout this long, hot summer.  Now that they’re here, I find myself caught in a hellish sports-fan quandary:  do I listen and not watch, or watch and not listen?  I can’t do both because, even if I put my hands over my eyes or ears to keep my brains from falling out, my head would explode from the sensory assault.  And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Option One – Turn Off the Picture
The reason to do this is obvious.  This year’s Olympics are inconceivably, overwhelmingly ugly.  Eyeball-searingly, painfully ugly.

And I mean real pain, the visual equivalent of the unpleasant neural spasm a mouthful of frozen piña colada can cause, shooting from the throat up behind the nose and lodging between the eyes, in the meantime paralyzing the lungs.  Have you noticed the color palette, for example (how could you not)?  Right now, I’m (not)watching/(not)listening to a beach volleyball match (absolutely great TV spectator sport, usually – you can see everything that happens, and the rules are not arcane).  The color scheme is Shell Gas Station Yellow and a menacingly toxic purple . . . two colors that shouldn’t exist in isolation and that produce a nuclear reaction of awfulness when they’re combined.  Owww.

The regular volleyball palette isn’t any better, although it attacks your stomach instead of your skull.  The interior court is an indescribable color – kind of a pinkish liver hue suffused with yellowish bile.  It is surrounded by an aggressively acid aqua, and bordered by a wall that can only be characterized as the color of congealed blood.

Then there is the gymnastics venue, festooned with Pepto-Bismol pink.  Or the Field Hockey venue, where athletes play on a ‘field’ of what looks like cyanide-laced, not-so-royal blue Astroturf.  Even one of the soccer stadiums has a wall of purple and pink that has a frightening, headache-inducing strobe effect.  [There are reports that internet sites showing the logo morphing from ‘official’ color to ‘official’ color had to be shut down, as they triggered seizures.]  Such visual atrocities make the basketball venue – astringent pink and purple plus black and white – seem tasteful, in a Jerseylicious sort of way.

The ubiquitous graphics are just as bad.  Primum inter pares is the Olympic logo.  Evidently, it is an abstraction of the year 2012.  Could have fooled me!  I thought it was a poorly designed tangram that no one could figure out how to assemble, particularly because it’s often blown apart to form a deconstructed aureole around the hideous typography of  ‘London 2012.’ 

It’s interesting, and sad, that in these graphic displays the Olympic rings have been drained of color, reduced to bone-white ciphers.  Obviously, the familiar happy interlock of primary colors has no place in the London Olympics.  We should have been warned by the opening ceremonies, an exercise in darkness.  Costumes were dark.  Props were dark.  Stands were dark (the LED lighting made them look uninhabited).  The theme was dark (and weirdly inappropriate:  Industrial Capitalism – The Musical!).  The only good thing about this gloomy spectacle was that it made moments of brightness (the forged Olympic rings, the torch lighting, the fireworks, the national costumes from Cameroon) even brighter.

While we’re revisiting the opening ceremonies, let’s commemorate the ugliness of this Olympic’s visual props.  Papier maché smokestacks rising from the ground like sooty, sullen meerkats?  A Glastonbury Tor resembling a melting pistachio slurpy?  A maze of children’s hospital beds, always a not-so-uplifting image, no matter the (somewhat discordant) intention to celebrate national healthcare?  A stadium floor that looks like giant Pick-Up Stix (instead of the map of London it was meant to invoke)?

And the bad visual props didn’t end with the (seemingly endless) opening ceremonies.  This morning, I watched an equestrian jumping contest (part of the bizarre ‘Eventing’ competition) in which middle-aged horses and riders hurdled over twelve gates within a minute, every knocked-down rail resulting in a deduction.  The gates were fashioned as miniature ‘cultural’ landmarks (miniature Stonehenge, miniature Tower Bridge, etc. etc.) . . . the effect being that the horses were playing a British-themed round of miniature golf in a strikingly tacky theme park.

[Note to all present and future British designers and artists:  NEVER employ miniature Stonehenges unless you want everyone and her dotty aunt to reference This Is Spinal Tap immediately.]

International viewers have been spared, in large part, one of the most visually and conceptually ugly props ever conceived:  the 2012 Olympic mascots.  Because we’ve been shielded from these monstrosities, here they are:

They represent drops of molten steel.  (Cute!  Put them on the rainbow-stickered shelf next to Hello Kitty Dolls and My Little Ponies!)  Their names are Wenlock and Mandeville.  (I could explain the names, just as I could explain the character that Kenneth Branaugh was playing in the opening ceremonies, but that’s why God made Wikipedia.)  Whoever thought that stupidly unappealing-looking, slimmed-down cyclopian Michelin man industrial spores would be a brilliant marketing idea probably created the animation series starring the mascots (“Out of a Rainbow,” “Adventures on a Rainbow,” etc.) you can buy if you’re really dedicated to burying the noble tradition of beautifully illustrated children’s books.  Barring that, you could purchase Wenlock and Mandeville stuffed toys or children’s apparel, all made just for you in Chinese sweatshops anchoring the global merchandising village.

Enough.  I hope I’ve put forth a good case for turning off the picture and just listening to the Olympics.

Option Two -- Turn Off the Sound

You can see, or hear, where this is going.  If (as an Olympics fan) you turn off the picture, you’re left with the sound.  Which means, inescapably, the commentators.

Since I’m writing from the United States, my opinions necessarily are based on coverage by ‘the networks of NBC’ (NBC, MSNBC, NBCSports, CNBC, Bravo).  The good thing:  you can see almost every event, somewhere, on TV (there’s also complete streaming video, but I’m such a Luddite – not to mention vision-impaired – that I prefer to watch sports on a reasonably sized TV screen).  The small bad thing:  you don’t know what’s on every channel at every hour of the day, so you spend lots of time clicking among channels.  Easy solution – follow what the network did during March Madness and have a discreet display showing what’s playing everywhere at the top or bottom of each channel’s broadcast. 

The big bad thing:  the commentary.  This is when one wishes, passionately, for major ear-wax build-up.  Most of the commentary, so far, has veered between two-bubbles-short of level and TV-screen-punching obnoxiousness.

Within my own small circle of Facebook friends, there’s been amusing criticism of Olympic commentary.  I’m sure if I bothered to cruise the internet on this subject, there’d be a ton more.  It’s like shooting fish (or white-water kayaks) in a barrel. 

So I don’t really need to write about all the commentators, and comments, that propel us toward the remote control’s mute button.  About Rowdy Gaines’ squeals and Bob Costas’s Napoleonic pretentiousness.  About the commentators who can’t resist jokes involving Chinese athletes’ names (Hu and Shu in the canoe!!).  About the commentators whose knowledge of geography, on a good day, may equal the average citizen’s abysmal ignorance of the subject.  About all the swimming commentators’ Michael Phelps fixation . . . and their clumsiness in moving the scripted ‘conversation’ (see ‘The Cliché Jar’ blog) from ‘will Michael Phelps win the most medals ever’ to ‘what’s wrong with Michael Phelps’ (and their clueless rudeness in trying to do so).

So which is it?  Picture off, or sound off?

I truly enjoy the Olympics, despite the visual and aural assaults on aesthetics, logic, and general intelligence.  Therefore, I’d like to end this rumination with a salute to a REALLY GOOD commentator . . . so good, in fact, that it tips the balance to ‘picture off’ (or even easier, picture ignored most of the time, sound on).  That would be:  Teddy Atlas.

You might have missed him.  He’s the boxing ‘color’ commentator, and has been so for umpteen Olympics.  This past weekend, boxing preliminaries were broadcast on CNBC (where most viewers might not think to look).  Anyway . . .

The reason Teddy Atlas is so good is that he’s both entertaining and informative.  On the one hand (the entertaining jab), he’s the Yogi Berra of boxing.  Example:  “He’s faster in legs.  Longer in arms.  Higher in height.”  Another example:  “He looks like two things to me. More developed, more experienced, more confident, more stronger.  That’s more than two.  Maybe too much for Ghasemi [the opponent].”

On the other hand (the informative punch), his gnomic utterances usually contain helpful quidbits about the sport.  For example:  “You can always catch the shorter fighter.  Before he gets to where he needs to be.”  Or: “He’s in the Olympic version of the prevent defense.”  And sometimes, an initially baffling statement leads to insightful analysis.  During one bout, Teddy Atlas remarked about a fighter: “There’s another advantage: shorter arms.  Like that other advantage, longer arms.“   Before I could register an internal ‘say what,’ he explained what he meant – basically, that a fighter can turn anything to his advantage, given ability and good coaching.  If you’re shorter, you whack away inside; if you’re taller, you work from the outside. 

I could multiply the examples of Teddy Atlas’s short-sentence, long-information comments (just one more:  “He never sits down on his punches.  His feet are always moving.  That’s why he doesn’t get leverage.“  Teddy’s point is that fancy footwork can be counter-productive if you’re either slow or extremely strong). 

Compare Teddy Atlas (who fought professionally and ‘interned’ as a trainer under Cus D’Amato) to, say, Tim Doggett (a former Olympian who now ‘commentates’ on his sport, gymnastics, and is less annoying than many other expert former-star commentators).  Both men certainly are well qualified to deliver expert analysis (unlike general talkers like Matt Lauer or Meredith Viera).  But Doggett says things like “Wow – that was wonderful” or “Big Mistake!” in relation to a pommel horse routine without describing what was good or bad (most viewers think of ‘good’ as sticking the landing and ‘bad’ as falling off the apparatus . . . Doggett is referring to some handwork intricacy that he doesn’t explain).  In contrast, Teddy says something that captures your attention, then makes it make sense – and adds to your understanding of tactics and strategies.

Well, this has turned into a blog in praise of Teddy Atlas!  So be it.  With what to me is the general ugliness and dopiness of the 2012 Olympics broadcasts, I’m happy to single out a non-competitor who is contributing positively to the virtual Olympic experience.

Teddy redeems audio!  Which also ratifies how I, and probably most people, ‘watch’ the Olympics.  It’s on, and we kind of pay attention and kind of do our work and kind of conduct our daily lives.  The audio is what cues us to put down the files or the dust cloth and actually look at what should be the Olympic focus:  athletic competition and accomplishment.  All I can say, in conclusion, is that this year’s visual packaging and commentary, for the most part, make looking and listening less pleasant than such an exhilarating athletic spectacle should be. 

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