Posted at 5:21 PM ET, 08/24/2008

My Closing Ceremonies

Just one night left, but before we're forced to start paying attention to the real world again, there's still time for "Playback's" medals for the 2008 Games:

Biggest Winners (Organization or Nation):

Gold: China. Host country wins much-desired respect for standard-setting Games. Spectacular venues, spirited competition, minimal glitches. Protests and demonstrations kept out of sight, mind. Even the pollution cooperated. Plus, Chinese athletes win gold-medal tally. Wonders of state-planned, authoritarian system should prompt International Olympic Committee to consider North Korea for 2024 Games.

Silver: NBC. Glossy, super-sanitized presentation draws big ratings and online traffic. Even in tight economy, advertisers cough up more than $1 billion for Olympic ads, re-assuring bean counters at NBC parent General Electric Co. Downside: Viewers probably still won't watch NBC's fall shows.

Bronze: Great Britain. Arse-kicking performance by former Olympic weakling comes just in time for 2012 Games in London.

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Posted at 3:49 PM ET, 08/23/2008

Homestretch: Sex, Tattoos and Other Naked Truths

What's the deal with...

...showing the gold-medal men's basketball game at 2:30 am?! 2:30 am? Nobody wants to see Kobe & Co. in primetime? After all the build-up about this being the Redeem Team, the redemption is going to occur when no one's watching. Ludicrous. Sorry, I'm just not as exercised about the 10 a.m. start for the women's gold-medal basketball game between the U.S. and Australia. Love to see that one in primetime, too, but given a choice, I know where I, and about 25 million other Americans, would come down...

...jingoistic NBC diving analyst Cynthia Potter? Potter sounds like tabloid TV host Nancy Grace, but that's not her main problem. Potter is far more likely to dwell on the mistakes of non-American competitors than on those of the Americans (exception: The Chinese, who are all but perfect). Perhaps we can't blame her. NBC is so invested in diving, showcasing it in primetime every night, that Potter is only following the network script. Case in point: NBC's relentless build-up for would-be golden girl Laura Wilkinson. The network tried to create a Kerri Walsh-Misty May-Treanor aura around Wilkinson, and kept at it even after it was clear Wilkinson wasn't going anywhere.

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Posted at 3:34 AM ET, 08/23/2008

Sure, He's Fast. But Can Usain Bolt Sell?

And now this commercial break:

Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco ad man and sports nut, has found a great way to combine work and play. After watching all of the major sporting events (your Super Bowls and World Series, your Olympics and NBA Championships, etc.), Bob writes up the Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. The report is Bob's witty and accessible take on the endorsement potential of the athletes and personalities who've just paraded across our screens for a few days or weeks.

Bob's work is aimed at advertisers, of course, but it's a fun read for civilians, too. Mostly, it offers a little peak into how advertisers think -- and what they think they can sell to us.

Anyway, Bob sent me a copy of his latest work handicapping the Olympics last night. Here's how the marketing judge scored it (all comments below are Dorfman's):


--Michael Phelps If anyone can transcend the limited shelf life of Olympians, it's Phelps. His performance in Beijing was legendary, he's now a household name and face on a global scale, he didn't melt under intense media scrutiny, his kid-next-door image came across as genuine and likeable, and he's almost certain to be a force in the 2012 London Games. Look for him next on Kellogg's cereal boxes, every talk show and awards show, congratulatory ads, commemorative merchandise, a swimming tour, maybe even going to Disneyland. It wouldn't be surprising to see Phelps boost his earnings in endorsements, merchandise deals, appearance fees and the like to as much as $50 million in the next year. His body is perfect for grooming products, or fashion brands, his ears belong in an iPod campaign or Q-Tip demo, and his prodigious appetite qualifies him for McDonald's -- ideally sinking his teeth into a new Phelps Phish sandwich. Add his surprisingly entertaining mom Debbie to the picture, and you've got the perfect pair to bring new life to Campbell's Chunky Soup campaign. But as big as Phelps has become, he still won't be able to take swimming out of the realm of a once-every-four-years sport. So how can Michael stay in the public eye until 2012? There's always "Dancing With the Stars," "Survivor" (in a location with lots of swimming challenges), a "Life With Mike" reality show, or maybe even "Aquaman, The Movie." But icons don't come cheap. If you really want Phelps, you'd better be thinking globally, long term (at least a four-year deal), and in the seven- or even eight-figure range.

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Posted at 12:51 AM ET, 08/22/2008

NBC News Responds

My counterparts at NBC News took exception to my last post about their reporting during the Olympics. Seems I missed a few things when I suggested that NBC's news division had been co-opted by NBC corporate to help promote the Games.

NBC News didn't exactly dispute my main point. But they did offer a few more facts to fill out the picture.

The main fact: Not all of the stories on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Wiliams" have been so upbeat about China or so rah-rah about the Olympics. Some of the stories have actually been just as tough and hard hitting as anything you'll see or read elsewhere, NBC News said. To make its point, the network sent me a list of its toughest and hardest-hittingest work before and during the Games.

It's a fine catalogue, to be sure. "Nightly" has done stories on pollution in Beijing, on China's efforts to block journalists' access to certain web sites, on China's crackdown on pre-Olympic dissent and other relevant subjects.

No questions there.

But one thing jumped out at me: NBC's list includes stories on China or the Olympics that have aired since July 29. The Olympics started on Aug. 8. So why start on July 29th? NBC News doesn't say, but it seems a bit arbitrary to me.

So that's why I'm not listing all of NBC News' 18 hand-picked stories (see below). Since my posting addressed NBC News' cuddly-as-a-panda-bear coverage during the Olympics, I think it's only fair to assess how "Nightly News" has done during this period, not before it. (Because I'm such a fair and balanced guy, I'll even spot NBC one, moving up the start date to Aug. 7, the day before the Games opened).

Once you get past that technicality, we're really talking about 11 stories that NBC considers substantive and tough. Still a pretty good list, just a bit shorter than the one NBC News would like.

Ready? Here's what NBC News says are its greatest hits from China (Aug. 7-Aug. 21). I cleaned up some of the descriptions but this is more or less what "Nightly News" sent me:

Aug. 7: Brian Williams and John Yang report on President Bush's arrival to Beijing. Story talks about Bush's criticism of Chinese government and the negative reaction from the Chinese government ... Also mentions problems with press corps' arrival in Beijing -- arguments [about] how to handle baggage and gear on plane.

Aug. 8: Nancy Snyderman talks about the air quality in Beijing. She confirms that the "thick" air is mainly humidity, but that China has been criticized for not taking care of the environment.

Aug. 8: Mark Mullen reports on army of workers who constructed the iconic Olympic buildings. Profiles the tough life of one migrant worker who has been on the road for 14 years to find work throughout China and only sees his family once a year. Beijing has now shut down most construction projects leaving many migrant workers without a job

Aug. 10: John Yang reports on President Bush's reaction to the murdered [American] tourist [in Beijing].

Aug. 10: Ian Williams reports on the Uighur Muslim population in China, which the government says is the biggest security threat to the Olympics. In Khotan, mosques under close surveillance and people required to speak Chinese.

Aug. 11: Broadcast from Tiananmen Square. History of the square and the 1989 uprising.

Aug. 11: Ian Williams reports on the "charm offensive" and the training the Chinese have been through to host the games including how to act in front of tourists.

Aug. 12: Ian Williams reports on China's one child policy. Parents who lost their children in the earthquake demand answers from the government on why shoddy schools were built.

Aug. 15: Making a Difference: Ian Williams reports on the rise of volunteerism among China's 20-somethings.

Aug. 16: Lester Holt reports on the legacy of one pro-democracy demonstrator.

Aug. 18: Piece about the lack of protests. Not one of 77 applications approved, Richard Engel visits a Beijing jail where someone who had applied for a protest permit is locked up.

Now, I've got my own list.

This one (courtesy of the Nexis database) shows all the other Olympic-related stories that "Nightly News" has aired since the Olympics began. It speaks to my original point about how its news agenda has been shaped by its corporate parent's massive investment in the Games. Somehow, the other network newscasts missed most of these stories:

Aug. 8: Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony goes off without a hitch.
Aug. 8: Number eight very powerful for Chinese, bringing good, bad luck.
Aug. 8: Making a Difference; Former 'Lost Boy' of Sudan Lopez Lomong to carry flag for US Olympic team in Opening Ceremony.
Aug. 9: Swimmer Michael Phelps discusses what he hopes to achieve at the Olympics.
Aug. 9: Chinese beach volleyball players come to California to train for the Olympics.
Aug. 10: Olympic results update.
Aug. 10: Yao Ming feels pressure from celebrity status.
Aug. 11: Olympic results update.
Aug. 12: Olympic results update; Olympic medal count.
Aug. 12: Between Speedo LZR, the Cube, swimming records being broken at Olympics.
Aug. 12: Rowdy Gaines (NBC swimming analyst) discusses how swimming and sports are evolving.
Aug. 12: Lip syncing by girl in Beijing opening ceremony.
Aug. 12: Gymnast Shawn Johnson competing in Olympic Games.
Aug. 13: Olympics update; Olympic medal count.
Aug. 13: Rowdy Gaines (NBC swimming analyst) discusses Michael Phelps.
Aug. 13: Companies using Olympics to advertise.
Aug. 13: Table tennis player's long road to the Olympics.
Aug. 14: Olympic update; Olympic medal count.
Aug. 14: Project 119 helps China's athletes prepare for Olympics
Aug. 14: Michael Phelps sparking interest in swimming in U.S.
Aug. 14: Reese Hoffa, adopted as child, prepares for track and field events.
Aug. 15: American women take gold, silver in individual gymnastics, Chinese woman takes bronze.
Aug. 15: Olympic medal count.
Aug. 15: Taylor Phinney, with help of Olympian parents, takes up family sport of cycling.
Aug. 15: NBC Olympic intern learns English by watching 'NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams' in her English class
Aug. 16: Olympic medal count; Olympic update.
Aug. 16: Rowdy Gaines (NBC swimming analyst) on covering the Olympics.
Aug. 16: Science of timing athletes at the Olympic Games more precise than ever.
Aug. 16: America working to clean up its image of having athletes using banned substances.
Aug. 16: Forty years later, John Dane trying to win gold medal in sailing after not qualifying his last time out.
Aug. 17: Olympic medal count; Olympics update.
Aug. 17: Dara Torres wins two silvers at Olympics.
Aug. 17: Michael Phelps talks about his Olympic experience (part one).
Aug. 18: Olympic medal count; Olympics update.
Aug. 18: U.S. basketball team hoping to redeem its performance from four years ago.
Aug. 18: Michael Phelps discusses his Olympic experience (part two).
Aug. 19: Olympic medal count, Olympics update.
Aug. 19: Air cleanest it's been in 10 years in Beijing.
Aug. 19: Tour of a Beijing hutong (back alley).
Aug. 19: BMX is latest sport added to Olympic roster.
Aug. 20: Olympic medal count, Olympics update.
Aug. 20: Allyson Felix hoping to sprint for gold in Beijing
Aug. 20: Lang Ping, Chinese volleyball star, coaching Team USA.
Aug. 21: Olympic medal count; Olympics update.
Aug. 21: Lopez family hoping to make history in Olympics in taekwondo.
Aug. 21: Two members of US water polo team hail from unlikely Commerce, California.

Um, not quite so solid, guys.

And here's a whiny little follow-up question, just for kicks: Why didn't NBC News tell me a thing about the stories that "The Today Show" is doing while it's been in Beijing for the past two weeks? "Today" is part of NBC's news division, too.

Surely it couldn't be because "Today" has become a virtual infomercial for NBC's primetime Olympics broadcast, could it? Just wondering.

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Posted at 12:24 AM ET, 08/21/2008

NBC News: Olympic Tout?

So I happened to glance up at the bank of TV sets in The Post's gym (excuse me, "Fitness Center") last night and noticed a curious thing. Three sets were going, one tuned to ESPN, one to CNN and the last to WRC, the local NBC affiliate. CNN had on Mr. Scowly Face himself, Mr. Lou Dobbs. ESPN had "SportsCenter" and WRC was carrying "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams."

"SportsCenter" had a bit of news about the Olympics, but only a bit. The announcers mentioned Usain Bolt's world-record 200, reviewed the medal count and ... well, then it was back to Brett Favre and pre-season NFL football (for a while in August, ESPN was the all-Brett Favre network).

"Nightly News," by contrast, was all over the Olympics. Man, were they all over them. First, Ann Curry gave the opening "billboards" for the top stories, which included a couple of Olympics-related features. Then, on came the Olympic news like the parade at the Opening Ceremonies. Curry mentioned Bolt, the medal count, and the news that an athlete from Afghanistan had won his country's first medal ever. Then there was a feature on American sprinter Allyson Felix, and another feature on a Chinese woman who coaches the American women's volleyball team. Even Tom Brokaw's story on how Chinese students out-perform Americans in math and science (this is news?) had an Olympic peg (Curry's intro: "Here in Beijing, China's athletes have proven themselves to be tough competitors in these Olympics. The fact is Americans have found in recent years that competition from China extends far beyond sports to science and mathematics..."). Oh, yeah: Curry managed to squeeze in a story about the Spanish plane crash and a new presidential poll (I don't think either mentioned the Olympics).

In other words, "Nightly News," which rarely cares about sports, was out-reporting "SportsCenter," the leading sports-news broadcast on TV, about the Olympics. High-fives, NBC News!

But hold on a second.

What I was really witnessing was a little lesson in media economics. The contrasting priorities of "SportsCenter" and NBC tell you loads about how money can drive the TV news agenda.

NBC has a massive investment in the Olympics (parent General Electric shelled out $894 million in rights fees alone), and has made an equally massive commitment to showcasing the Games on "the networks of NBC." Said networks (CNBC, MSNBC, etc.) are devoting a record 3,400 hours, on the air and online, to the Big Show this time around.

But all those decisions were made on the corporate side of NBC, not in the news division. Call me old school, but in the journalism textbooks, it says the news division is supposed to make up its own mind about what to cover without being too mindful of what the bosses in corporate are pushing. In other words, GE's need for a return on its investment in the Olympics isn't supposed to be NBC News' problem.

Yet for the past two weeks, the line between NBC News and NBC's corporate priorities has seemed awfully blurry. Since the Olympics began, "Nightly News" (emanating live from Beijing) has been larded with the kind of soft-focus/feel-good Olympic stories that are a staple of the soft-focus/feel-good stuff that's appearing on NBC in primetime. On Wednesday's "Nightly News," it was Allyson Felix and the Chinese volleyball coach. On Tuesday, it was a story about BMX bike racing, a new Olympic sport. On Monday there were stories about the American basketball team and a "conversation" with Michael Phelps. On Sunday, it was ... well, you get the point.

The quasi-news-y "Today Show" has also been broadcasting live from Beijing, too. Guess what kinds of stories they've been doing?

But if the Olympics are such a big deal, how come the rest of the non-NBC TV world is more or less shrugging its shoulders about them? If Allyson Felix and Chinese volleyball coaches rate so many precious minutes on "Nightly News," how come "SportsCenter" or "Nightline" or CNN isn't chasing those stories?

One obvious reason is that ESPN and every other non-NBC news organization in America (including this here Web site), don't have access to NBC's copyrighted Olympics footage. In TV news terms, that's like not having access to oxygen. No pictures, no story.
But a more important reason is that ESPN and everybody else doesn't have $894 million invested in Beijing. ESPN does have a few billion dollars riding on NFL TV rights, which is why "SportsCenter" has been droning on for so long about Favre and pre-season football.

I know, an old story -- money talks. But when it comes to the news, I think maybe it should just shut up.

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Posted at 3:19 AM ET, 08/20/2008

Glad You Asked, NBC

It's been a very watchable Olympics. Keen competition, gorgeous pictures, surprising and stirring moments. These Games remind me that two weeks of the Summer Olympics are better than any 20 reality shows, and most seasons of every other kind of TV program.

Which, of course, is why I have to fix them (I'm a man; I can't help it). Herewith is my first list of the ways NBC could improve its coverage (I'll have another list later in the week). And you're welcome, NBC; I'll send you my bill:

1. Enough with the trampoline and synchronized this-n'-that in primetime. God invented cable so we wouldn't have to watch trampoline and synchronized diving; those sports will do just fine on USA or CNBC. What, people don't want to see basketball in primetime? With NBA superstars? Yes, they do. Every game. Ditto for much of the (non-beach) volleyball, water polo and softball. I know you have research that says otherwise, NBC. I spit on your research.

2. And while you're at it, show it live. NBC has paid so much money to the IOC that it could probably get the IOC to change the weather if it wanted to. NBC can surely get the IOC to change the schedule in order to show certain events live and in primetime. It's been done with swimming and gymnastics. Now do it with track. As I've whined previously, NBC couldn't be bothered to go live on the 100 meters -- the most widely-anticipated track event (maybe the most widely-anticipated event, period). I've been forced to place myself in a media-free cocoon for unmercifully long periods. I've tried not to look at the results, really, I have. But I can't help myself; I've fallen off the wagon repeatedly. Help me help myself, NBC. Show it to us as it happens.

3. Disallow, on grounds of simple decency and common sense, any advertisers who insist on airing ads that use Olympic-themed puns. "Why settle for the silver when you can go for the gold?" asks one of the faux Olympians in a McDonald's spot, referring to a golden-hued McChicken sandwich. Here's my question: Why use a mediocre commercial when you could afford much better, McD's?

4. Stop interviewing athletes seconds after they finish their events. I realize this may be the only time they're available, what with being hustled off the track or away from the pool, but it's dumb. Athletes aren't the world's most articulate people to begin with, and they aren't helped by having to collect their thoughts moments after pushing mind and body to the limit. As is, you get this:

Interviewer: How'd you feel out there?
Interviewee: I...(huff, puff)...felt...(huff, puff)...good (faint).
Interviewer: Okay. Good luck.

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Posted at 12:19 AM ET, 08/19/2008

The Shill of Victory

By now, it's old news that several elements of these Olympics have been as phony as a knockoff Prada purse. Mind you, I'm not exactly shocked that some of the fireworks at the Opening Ceremonies, and most of the kids who performed in it, weren't quite what they seemed. I'm not even sure that having organized posses of "cheer squads" to cover up the empty acreage at Olympic venues deserves much more than a shrug (don't the Academy Awards do the same thing?). In any case, I'm all for stagecraft. And who are we as Americans to whine about a little manipulation with our extravaganzas? We invented that sort of thing.

But it would be nice to know about who's doing the string pulling and maybe why they've done it. NBC doesn't seem to want to tell me. In case I missed the network's investigative reporting (I've watched just about every minute of the primetime coverage), the network has basically decided to pass on any mention of it.

My friends at NBC News will be happy to point out how they've covered all the grimy little aspects of the Games, and then some. Good on you, boys, but that's not quite the same thing. About 8 million people watched "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" last week; NBC's primetime Olympic telecasts are averaging around 30 million viewers. So shifting responsibility to the news division and scrubbing the inconvenient facts from the much larger main event doesn't entirely count as informing the public.

Of course, NBC never said it was in Beijing to cover a news event. At the risk of repeating myself, NBC treats the Games as a sports-themed entertainment event featuring an exotic backdrop and the colorful people of many lands. It "packages" the Games as a series of mini-dramas with themes of athletic triumph, striving and loss. Hence the tales of competitors who have a "dream" or are on a "journey" (in one of last night's gauzy featurettes, American gymnast Nastia Liukin and her father-coach Valeri confessed to having both "dreams" and "journeys"). When that's your game, you're not about to start bumming people out with too many cold hard facts.

Besides, NBC's advertisers like it when viewers are in a good mood when the commercials start.

It's bad enough that NBC won't say a word about the big, unpleasant issues surrounding China during these Olympics. But now it's clear that it can't be bothered with the smaller stuff, either.

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Posted at 3:37 PM ET, 08/18/2008

Is There a Medal-Stand Script?

There's something very odd about the medal ceremonies at this Olympics. Is someone choreographing these things? Used to be: Step up, receive medal, play anthem, wave to crowd, go home (as that feel-good Coke commercial showing Olympians and Special Olympians receiving medals attests).

But this Olympics has added another semi-obligatory rite. In the swimming events, it went like this: Anthem ends, gold-medal winner invites bronze and silver medalists to top of podium. They put their arms around each other and wave to the crowd. All raise their flower bouquets. Then they bring their medals up to their faces and smile for the cameras (optional behavior: kiss or bite the medal). Then they leave the podium, walk around pool, and throw their flowers to friends or parents in stands.

The track events seem to have their own post-event ritual, too. Winner jogs past the finish line, gets flag of his/her country, does victory lap with flag stretched overhead, or flopped around his/her shoulders.

Nothing wrong with all this, mind you. I'm just sayin'. But who wrote this script and why does everyone seem to follow it?

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Posted at 2:05 AM ET, 08/18/2008

Thanks for the Money, NBC

You'd hardly know it from NBC's rah-rah coverage of American victories in these Olympics, but China has begun to lap us in the gold-medal count. It could even win the overall medal tally by the time the Beijing Games conclude next Sunday. This has already inspired some hand-wringing on this side of the Pacific and will likely inspire more once the cold medal reality sets in.

Can we possibly compete against China's state-planned, state-subsidized athletic juggernaut?

The answer, of course, is of course. In fact, we'd better, if only for the long-term financial health of the Olympics.

Oddly enough, the single most important element in American athletes continued competitiveness is NBC. I'd argue that it's also among the most important factors in the success of the Olympics, too.

NBC, after all, supplies the two things American athletes and the Olympics themselves can't live without: Money and American television exposure.

About 60 percent of the International Olympic Committee's entire global TV income comes from the U.S., specifically from NBC. The network paid $894 million for the rights to the Beijing Games, and an astounding $2.3 billion for the rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. The IOC needs NBC every bit as much as NBC needs the IOC.

NBC also just happens to be the biggest single underwriter of American Olympians, at least indirectly. Under terms of its contract with the IOC, the network sends a big chunk of change -- somewhere around $300 million -- to the U.S. Olympic Committee. That's a huge windfall for America's Team, and doesn't even count the lucrative sponsorship deals that the various committees pull in ("Official Waterpik of the U.S. Olympic Skeet-Shooting Team," etc.). The USOC redirects this money to all the sub-federations (track, swimming, judo, whatever) that bankroll training, travel, facilities and research for our would-be medal winners.

This money blizzard wouldn't be possible if Americans were doing as poorly as, say, India (one medal so far) at the Olympics. The system only works as long as we keep piling up medals.

Why? Simply because Americans don't like watching losers. American victories in swimming, gymnastics and track -- the three biggest Summer Olympic events in the U.S., judging by TV ratings -- are critical to NBC's ratings success, which means they're also critical to the Olympics' financial well being. Fewer American medal winners mean fewer American TV viewers. Fewer American viewers mean fewer American advertisers. Fewer advertisers and NBC isn't handing $2.3 billion checks to the IOC.

Conversely, when Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, et al, win, everyone wins -- viewers, advertisers, NBC, the IOC.

NBC makes another valuable contribution to America's medal count, although one that's a bit harder to quantify. By promoting, packaging, and airing the Olympics in primetime every night, NBC creates enormous interest in the Games among young Americans. This all but ensures the flow of future Phelpses and Liukins.

How many little kids will take up the butterfly or jump on a balance beam now because they want to be just like Mike or Nastia? Remember that the U.S. was a second-rate gymnastics power when Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci wowed the world (and sent ABC's Olympic ratings into the stratosphere) in the 1970s. Inspired by those Soviet bloc pixies, American kids flocked to the gym. American gymnastics teams now regularly contend for medals.

All of which is why I don't think we have to worry too much about the Chinese coming to eat our lunch. U.S. Olympic development programs now have more money than ever before. Our athletes also have plenty of incentives -- money, fame, glory -- to do as well as the Chinese. You can't guarantee gold medals, but our decentralized, private-sector approach to developing champions seems perfectly capable of keeping up with anyone in the world.

So, bring on the new Big Red Machine. We'll very likely respond as we always have -- by figuring out how to run and swim faster or jump higher.

The only thing the USOC and the IOC really have to fear is that Americans will stop watching the Olympics.

Please, Mr. Nielsen, don't fail us now.

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Posted at 1:25 PM ET, 08/17/2008

Place Inappropriate Pun Here

Great timing: Visa aired a commercial last night saluting Michael Phelps's eighth gold medal just a few seconds after Phelps won it (in the 4x100 medley relay). They must have had that one in the can.

The commercial showed Phelps knifing through a pool in super slo-mo close-up as Morgan Freeman said something laudatory about him. Very much in the "I'm-going-to-Disneyland" tradition of insta-advertising, except to my eyes, the gold tinting of the footage made it look as if Phelps was swimming through a pool filled with urine. Oh, well...

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Posted at 1:21 AM ET, 08/17/2008

The Big Five ... So Far

I'll state my bias up front: I'm an exuberantly irrational track geek (ran it back when, have followed it for a few decades, even went to the Olympic Track Trials in Eugene, Ore. in early July). So take this very short list with a big grain o' salt.

Anyway, these are my top five favorite Olympic TV moments of the past nine days. And please, no fair flaming me for not including Michael Phelps's eight golds. That's not a moment; that's a rock carving on Mt. Olympus. As always, feel free to chime in with your own list:

1. Usain Bolt's 100 Meter World Record

Bolt looked merely unbeatable in the preliminaries (just as Tyson Gay looked awful), but he was an absolute freak in the final. Considering that Bolt is basically a novice in the 100 (he specialized in the 200 until this year), it boggles the mind to imagine what he's truly capable of. To run the sort of showboating race that he did -- dropping his arms, turning his head and beating his chest over the final 15 meters -- and STILL run faster than any human being ever has is one of the, if not THE, most amazing things I've seen in track. Would it really have hurt NBC to have shown us this jawdropper as it happened?

2. The U.S.'s Come-from-Behind Victory in the 4x100 Freestyle Relay

Jason Lezak beats France's Alain Bernard down the stretch. Spectacular race, made all the sweeter by the U.S. victory over an uncharacteristically arrogant French team (uncharacteristic because it's been a few Olympics, indeed maybe forever, since the French men have had competitive sprinters).

3. Michael Phelps's "Touch-Out" in the 100-meter Butterfly

I'd grown so used to Phelps demolishing the field in his races that I was dumbfounded to see him barely in medal contention with 25 meters to swim. I'm still not sure how he won (possible answer: propellers?). I love this race not just because it enabled Phelps to tie Mark Spitz's seven gold medals, but because of the metaphoric vagaries of it. To wit, if Milorad Cavic, the Serbian-American whom Phelps barely beat, had been just 0.02 faster, the world would have forever remembered him as the man who derailed a legend. But history turns on that unimaginable margin. Alas, poor Cavic will be quickly forgotten. As is, I had to Google his name.

4. Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson in the All-Around

I like gymnastics about as much as I like figure skating, which is not at all (hey, I'm a guy; I can't help it). But how could anyone not appreciate such grace under pressure? I'm still puzzled by how it's possible to do those things on a 4-inch beam. That's some crazy circus act.

5. Dara Torres

Pick a race, any race, I don't care -- any of her "moments" will do. The fact that the 41-year-old Torres was in the Olympics and winning medals is to re-consider the limits of physical capability. It's not just that she's 41. She also had a baby two years ago. And she returned to world-class swimming after taking two Olympic cycles off (if she hadn't, she might have qualified for SEVEN Olympic teams, instead of a paltry five). Before one of her races, Torres was joking around with a 16-year-old Australian swimmer and I realized: Torres is old enough to be the teenager's mother. And don't forget the sight of Torres organizing her fellow competitors to stand down before a semifinal race and strolling over to appeal to a pool judge to buy time for another swimmer who'd had a wardrobe malfunction. A supreme act of maturity and sportsmanship. As Will Ferrell-as-James-Lipton once said, I have to make up a word to describe how magnificent she is: Strumtrillescent!

Posted by Paul Farhi | Permalink | Comments (4)
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