There’s nothing like the Olympics to make me wish I lived in the United States. Unfortunately, I’m not referring to my patriotism or nationalism. I’m thinking of the American television coverage of the Games.
I’m aware of NBC’s controversial airing of various events in delayed broadcasts, in order to accommodate time zone differences and garner large prime-time audiences. But I firmly state that televising events in real time is equally unpleasant, if not more so. Here’s how it works in Hong Kong:
At 4:30pm each afternoon, Olympic coverage begins on one network station. The focus is usually on such sport oddities as archery, shooting, fencing or wrestling. Occasionally a sudden switch occurs, in which we are presented with the last few minutes of some other race or close contest. Yet without a proper context (what event is it, who is in the lead, who are the contenders, what is at stake), it’s a schizophrenic feeling. Furthermore, due to a network dispute, the Games play on two different channels; every four hours, we have to change channels, though they both feature the same set of commentators and basic structure.
Of course, local Hong Kong coverage will focus on Olympic sports in which Hong Kong citizens are competing, which are few. Secondary focus is on events in which China competes—specifically, events in which China is likely to medal. Never in my life have I suffered through so many hours of badminton and ping pong… er, table tennis. The former doesn’t even employ a ball, and the latter is simply dull. Admittedly, “table tennis” sounds like a legitimate sporting event, while “ping pong” implies a fun game to play in the basement on a Friday night. Interestingly, it seems that Olympic table tennis players have to chase their own ping pong balls. That’s the worst part of the game in my opinion—trying to catch that weightless ball as it bounces erratically under the table or across the floor.
I continue to watch these dreadful events because I’m addicted to the Olympics. I love the cross-cultural competition, the coming together of people from all over the world, the sense of team spirit and camaraderie among athletes, hearing various national anthems, watching enthusiastic fans, and seeing the different reactions to wins and losses. In other words, the “internationalness” (a made-up term that I really like). Why else would I continue to sit in front of the television during a judo tournament? (A sport in which maniacal men or women strike at each other without actually punching or hitting, but by grabbing the lapels of the bathrobe of the opponent. I have yet to understand how a point is scored or a match is won. The women’s judo more closely resembles a catfight with lots of yelling, disheveled clothing and mussed up hair.)
The “good” events do not air until after midnight or 1:00am. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen few track and field events and only two or three swimming competitions, thanks to my desire to sleep at night. I did pull two all-nighters this week—both on evenings before I had a day off from work—managing to stay awake until the day’s events ended around 5:00am.
NBC coverage in the USA often inserts personal information about competitors in between the events. The underprivileged athlete from Africa who runs for the love of running; the South American woman who wins the first medal for her country; the diving duo who come out of nowhere to take silver; the athlete who sets a new world record; the underdog. On local coverage in Hong Kong, we don’t see these Hallmark-moments in which an individual is featured in a short film, spotlighting the struggles and heartache she has experienced on her way to the Games. No back-stories or histories of specific competitors, featuring the families that scrimped and saved so Junior could have lessons and hire a coach. Sometimes I miss these snippets of humanity.
Commercial breaks are inserted with little regard to what is taking place on screen. A commentator may be mid-sentence when the cheesy Olympic title screen appears [see picture above] and transitions us to an advertisement. We may see a shampoo commercial featuring Michael Phelps (whose voiceover makes it appear that he speaks Chinese); a tired ad for a camera, a financial services company or real estate; or one of the dozens and dozens of public service announcements. And we never hear the “Olympic theme song”—the rousing, trumpet-filled John Williams bit that plays at every commercial break on NBC. Perhaps it’s a copyright issue.
The commentators, for the most part, do their job well; which is to say, they actually explain the sport, the rules, and offer opinions on what has taken place. Once in awhile, I hear a commentator mutter, “I’m not sure what happened there… um… Anyway, the score is…” One obnoxious American basketball commentator focuses less on the game, and rather enjoys making remarks on hairstyles, shoe choices, and fan behavior. My favorite commentators are the lively British, whose accents grow stronger when they get excited: “Oh my goodness me! What a spec-TAC-ular performance! Just BRIL-liant!”
I’m grateful for the English coverage. In fact, on Hong Kong television the Olympics are covered in Cantonese, with the option of switching to English audio. The primary commentators—more like emcees that help transition between events—are Chinese, and sit at a newscast desk in matching suits. In the background, behind glass, are the English-speaking commentators. When the event broadcast pauses and the emcees are shown, we see the Chinese speakers, while hearing the English speakers. Occasionally, the English commentators are interrupted by a collective wave from the Chinese commentators—the camera pans out to show the English speakers, and they stop mid-sentence to acknowledge the Chinese wavers. Odd. But typical Hong Kong.
I’ve got a lot of complaints about local coverage of this historic event. Nevertheless, on this final day of the 2012 Games, Olympic withdrawal is setting in. Four more years until I see another judo match featuring bathrobe-clad contenders.