Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

Living in Seattle means never having to see Bob Costas.

For two weeks in August, cable customers in the Pacific Northwest can thank the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for preserving our collective sanity. Back in 2000, when NBC moronically refused to air so much as a minute of live footage from Sydney, the CBC was a lifesaver. Without the kindly Canadians, I’d have missed Cathy Freeman’s historic 10-hankie win in the 400 meters just because it happened at 3 a.m. Of course, I couldn’t discuss her boffo spacesuit uniform with any colleagues out of CBC range since they had to wait another 20 hours to see the race.

This year, at least some of NBC’s 1,200 hours of coverage (spread over seven networks) will be broadcast live. But it wasn’t just the tape delay that drove NBC viewers batty four years ago. It was the endless sob stories, the desire to impose a narrative arc on sporting events, and the boosterism that gave short shrift to non-U.S. athletes.

You can’t really blame NBC for waving the stars and stripes. No TV network will ignore its country’s athletes; viewers would be outraged if NBC overlooked American competitors. But with the U.S. team hoping to win around 100 medals in Athens, just showing Americans repeatedly trudge to the podium to pick up their golds eats up huge chunks of airtime. Sure, this time around we can watch badminton on Bravo, but only in the wee small hours after the prime-time NBC telecast has set the next day’s water-cooler agenda.

Canadian mediocrity has freed the CBC from the strictures of American coverage. When it celebrates Canadian successes, often in the novelty events that are forgotten between Olympiads—synchronized diving, judo, mountain biking—the CBC demonstrates sporting diversity. And when they televise blue-chip events like swimming, track, and gymnastics, they can’t possibly be homers because there’s not a maple leaf in sight. The Canucks also aren’t afraid to give airtime to losers—and not just the sentimental favorites who gamely finish long after the winners are showing their shoe logos to the crowd. This isn’t the Olympic spirit in action. The Canadians show losers because they are losers.

The Sydney Games began well for our neighbors to the north, with unexpected early medals in the triathlon and trampoline. But as the Canadians slowly descended the medal table, avuncular CBC host Brian Williams became visibly depressed. For those of us who couldn’t care less if every Canadian athlete were disqualified, the nation’slosses were our gain. To distract attention from the home country’s awful performance, CBC just showed the sports and kept the disheartening analysis to a minimum.

This time around, Canada is managing expectations. Last weekend, CBC aired Fighting To Win, a fascinating documentary on the Australian sports system. Sports-crazed Aussies hit rock bottom at the 1976 Summer Games (“in, of all places, Canada,” Williams’ commentary ominously intoned), when they took home just four medals. The chastened nation pumped money into sports, funding coaches and setting up “a centralized system dedicated to excellence.” The camera lingered lovingly on the Australian Institute of Sport, a palace of sports-science innovation. Meanwhile, back in Ontario, a Canadian high-jump coach displayed the ancient, jerry-rigged equipment that tightfisted federal bureaucrats foisted onhis athletes.

Envious of Australia’s obsession with victory, a Canadian member of the International Olympic solemnly concluded, “Canada’s going to be destroyed in Athens.” As a humanitarian, I feel bad for Canada. But as a TV viewer who wants to see a maximum of sport and a minimum of chat, a bunch of loser Canucks doesn’t seem like such a terrible prospect.