the olympics from another angle

We’ve been asked a great many times if we would be attending any Olympic events. Though sorely tempted to make the trek down to London and join the gawkers lining the streets for the marathon or the cycle racing, we have not. This will be incomprehensible to fellow Olympic devotees–in fact, I’m shocked and disgusted at it myself. I can only say we have two small children, no vehicle, a severe lack of funds, and I am very pregnant, sore, and constantly fatigued. We did plan to rise early on the Tuesday last month when the Torch was headed through Oxford; planned it all summer. And no one was more surprised than I, when on the Wednesday morning, a friend who came to lunch mentioned having risen early to “stand out and see the Torch yesterday.” Did you say YESTERDAY?!? Shoot.

The other question we’ve been asked is whether Oxford has many more visitors this summer because of the Olympics. I think probably we do, it’s just impossible to tell. At the height of the summer the Oxford byways are so crammed with camera-wielding tourists from around the world that any increase would be impossible to tabulate. They’re just everywhere. The High and Cornmarket and Broad Street resemble nothing so much as a human sea on most afternoons. It’s all Asian businessmen with expensive cameras and European teenagers with eyeliner and cigarettes and American families talking loudly–for a few stereotypes.

Our Olympic involvement has consisted of many hours of watching free BBC on the internet, as we have no telly. The experience has involved at least as much cultural comparison as it has enjoyment of superb athletics. The English commentary is a very, very different animal from American NBC. For one, there is considerably less of it. There are entire events telecast with no commentary at all, many events where there are long intervals of silence, and for the rest of the events the commentary is issued at a much slower pace than that to which we chatty Americans are accustomed. It’s not unlike watching a non-Major golf tournament on the Golf channel. It highlights the English propensity for both understatement and cautious speech.

It has also given me a new appreciation of the English national gift of Not Taking Oneself Too Seriously. Mistakes or misstatements are common but disregarded and a great many little jokes and ironic comments are thrown in. Often the camera work and the commentary are not in sync, so one is watching one athlete while hearing about another. The speakers are not afraid to state baldly that they have no idea about something or that they don’t know exactly what is going on. It’s quite refreshing–but very weird for those of us accustomed to the rapid-fire, statistic-flinging, emotional Americans.

The last thing I’ve noted is the national emphasis on being a good sport. There is constant high praise for excellent athletes from all nations. An English athlete displays equal enthusiasm for a bronze medal as for a gold, and nearly as much for just the joy and honor of competing. It constantly happens that one watches a final and hears both commenters saying how well an English athlete did and how much their athletic program has developed (when they’ve placed ninth or twenty-seventh or something) and then hear the interview with the athlete about not winning and hear the same positive message: “I’ve done my best and I think I did well and I’m okay with it.” And then ensues praise for the other athletes competing.

Alex has reminded me that here we are often watching the Olympic events as they happen and generally ten things are happening at once–so many that it is tough to choose what to watch and not find oneself watching a little spattering of everything and nothing. It is difficult to compare an experience like this to watching NBC in the States, where the time-delay allows for a piecemeal presentation of all the best moments of each day to be put together, expertly commented on, and displayed to the viewer.

We’ve really enjoyed watching these two weeks. We’ve found ourselves curiously divided between watching the English athletes and enjoying their fantastic success and our loyalties as Americans. I wish the Olympics came every year–but I suppose they wouldn’t be as special.

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One Response to the olympics from another angle

  1. Susan says:

    Hello, just read this and had to chime in. I watched “Eurosport” coverage here in Zurich, and it’s in German (sadly, since I’m not conversant) – but it was totally focused on the events, and gave fair and complete coverage, which I really appreciated. I am beginning now to slowly get over Olympics withdrawal 😉

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