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Michael Phelps is an Olympics superstar; NBC deserves medals too

Every two years the Olympics roll around and amazing specimens of humanity like Michael Phelps make the rest of us feel like tree sloths. 

The Winter Olympics are bad enough – downhill racers streaking like rockets, snowboarders and ski jumpers defying gravity, skaters making ice look like a dance floor instead of something hard, cold and dangerously slick – but the Summer Games have the added element of athletes competing with their bodies on display. In swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball, track and field and more, the men and women are built like Greek gods. Muscles are huge and hard, stomachs are flat, legs are powerful.

For a country with an epidemic of obesity, the Olympians not only shame us, they make us feel so far behind in the race to have a healthy, well-proportioned body that any pitiful effort we might apply to the task of improving ourselves seems hopeless. Every time I sit down to watch an Olympics broadcast, I consider doing a few crunches in front of the TV. I almost never do. When confronted with the willpower of Olympic athletes, a token try for a hard body that is likely to be followed by a bowl of ice cream an hour later seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless, despite the feelings of inadequacy they inspire, the Olympics are my favorite sporting event. I am a fair-weather fan for my college teams. I am easily bored by most professional sporting events. I just don’t care enough about sports to spend my weekends in front of a TV or to shell out the high cost of a ticket for a game that is just a game. When I get interested, it is because something is at stake. A team from my alma mater makes an appearance at a bowl game. A team from my city is in the playoffs. It’s the World Series or the Super Bowl or the World Cup.

I suppose that is the appeal of the Olympics; something big is on the line in every event, even if it’s just ping-pong. The only exception to this may be basketball, where the U.S. is so dominant that it’s boring (except when a little country such as Lithuania puts a scare in the latest iteration of the NBA dream team). That is why it can be fun watching a sport you have never seen before with athletes from countries other than your own. You know you are watching the top competitors in the world doing something you could probably never master yourself because you are no longer young enough or strong enough and you never had that much coordination anyway.

TV broadcasters figured out long ago that the Olympics is not an event for avid fans of particular sports, it is a ritual celebration of human endurance and superhuman feats. It is the stories that matter more than the scores. When NBC unveils for us the life story of a swimmer from California or a gymnast from Russia or a runner from Jamaica, we find ourselves rooting for that person and wanting to see how things come out for them. Will they fulfill the dream for which they have worked and sacrificed for so long? Or will they fall short by a point or a step or a slip or a one-hundredth of a second?

If there has been anything close to a controversy in the London Olympics – other than the eight badminton players who were trying to lose a match in order to face a weaker opponent in the subsequent round – it has been the way NBC has kept the biggest stories embargoed until prime time. Yes, a fan can now see nearly every event presented live on cable channels and on the Internet, but not the hot tickets, as defined by NBC. Those are largely the big five: swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field and beach volleyball.

In past years, there were complaints against NBC for giving so much attention to only those sports. Now that all the other sports are available around the clock, the complaint is that NBC is clinging to an old model of broadcast that no longer applies in the digital age when people expect to see whatever they want whenever they want it.

Well, maybe NBC is stuck in the past, but I am weary of the complainers - the people who think they deserve to get everything for free. News organizations are dying all over America because of that attitude.

NBC spends a lot of money putting together a gigantic effort to deliver the Olympics to us. They deserve to make some money back. Perhaps I am an oddball, but I do not mind waiting to see some of these stories told and, as far as I’m concerned, the storytellers at NBC deserve medals of their own.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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