Five-ring Circus

“Why Not Just Use Beavers?’

NBC’s visit to the Three Gorges Dam, and other Olympics coverage highlights.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games. 

As presented on NBC, the Summer Olympics are a celebration of many worthy things—strength, agility, determination, and Coca-Cola, just for instance, but, perhaps foremost, the diversity of world culture. Last Friday, at the end of the NBC Nightly News, in a weekly segment called the “Making a Difference” report, Brian Williams assumed the honor of cranking up the hype for the opening ceremony. With the Bird’s Nest in the background and the deep grays of the Beijing air bringing out the coral tones in his tan, the anchor fired up a lesson in German and Polish cuisine—that is, in the kind of cooking fat referred to in Yiddish as schmaltz.

The subject was track-and-fielder Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese refugee voted U.S. flag bearer—”a very symbolic choice this year,” said Williams, “part walking political statement … also a walking symbol of the Olympic ideal.” I’d thought he was a runner, but whatever. Williams, having dignified the first great sob story of the 29th Olympiad, then gave his colleagues in infotainment at Access Hollywood a crack at it. That show teased Shaun Robinson’s interview with Lomong with the promise that she would perform the rite of actual sobbing. She did so without disrupting her mascara, which is to say that the Access Hollywood makeup team stuck the landing.

One points this out not to trivialize a civil war but to note that the jaw won’t stop dropping at the process by which featured athletes—the victims of politics, disease, and “personal tragedy”—get reshaped into “very symbolic” persons. We all should have ceased to be amazed by this 20 years ago, but NBC, like Michael Phelps, continues to break its own world records.

Its go-to tone is in fact tone-deaf, as if, having committed itself to exercising restraint in presenting the actual events, the network gets carried away at the faintest whiff of human interest. A lachrymose segment on a Polish swimmer first lamented that she’d killed her brother in a car accident, then, in broadcasting the crowning quote that he had possessed all the qualities she would seek in a husband, ushered incestuous implications ickily onto the scene. A major subplot last night involved U.S. beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh briefly losing her wedding ring in the sand. How’d it feel to have it back, Kerri? “You know, Heather, I felt like I could breathe again. …”

Bob Costas presides over all this from a room decorated in taupe and black enamel, an unobtrusive space splitting the difference between chic and dull, a look we’ll call Michael Mann Marriott. Mary Carrillo was in Monday night with a palate-cleansing travel report on the many supersized things that China has to offer—the Great Wall and the world’s tallest man and so on. Carrillo took the assignment lightly, asking, at Three Gorges Dam, “Why not just use beavers?” But in general NBC is awed, cowed, and, frankly, turned on by China’s size. Sunday’s U.S.-China men’s basketball game was repeatedly hyped as “the most-watched basketball game in the history of the sport,” which, if true, meant that it was the blow-out that bored the greatest number of eyeballs to tears, not even offering the solace of replays of the Americans’ many sparkling alley-oops.

The intro to Monday night’s men’s artistic gymnastics competition kicked off with heavy percussion and moderate Orientalism: “There are only 26 characters in the English language to make us understand” the import of the event. Ah, so, but the very symbolic glyphs of the indigenous people make it clear that this was “the biggest sports event of this nation’s history.” The Occidental best suited to rise to the occasion was U.S. gymnast Justin Spring, who, with his cocky brush cut and handsome smirk, looks like a cross between G.I. Joe and James Dean. Before taking to the parallel bars, he rakishly blew the surplus chalk from his hands. After, he preened, strutted, and then pretended finally to notice the camera for the first time: “What’s up, America?” Give that man a Wheaties box.