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The Unlympics: Story Time

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Most of the time, I have little to no interest in sports. This includes the Olympic Games. However, I can tell you Michael Phelps needs to eat between 8,000 and 10,000 calories per day to fuel his body.

How is it that in just the brief bits of Olympic coverage I've digested, I know more about the eating habits of an American swimmer than I do about the results of the competition and the details of the sports themselves?

It's because the Olympics are more than sports, at least to NBC; they're a single endless story, with myriad smaller stories playing out inside. Each athlete does not rise or fall so much on what they do, as much as they are carefully crafted into a soundbite, or a feature story, or a one-liner for an announcer to deliver as a competition begins.

I was stunned Sunday afternoon to see a male swimmer fully fleshed out with a three-minute video package detailing his past, his upbringing, and his training, including cute pictures of him when he was a baby. This was not one of the name competitors that even Olympic neophytes have a passing awareness of, and this wasn't coverage during the key prime time hours, when one would expect an expanded focus on the players. This was 4 p.m. on a Sunday, some random swim meet in Beijing, and I got to see baby pictures of a guy I didn't even know existed a few minutes before.

I certainly don't begrudge any of these athletes their moment in the sun; they've earned it and fully deserve it. I just wonder what the impact may be of their hard work and dedication and sacrifice being chopped up by TV producers into easily-digested bullet points designed to captivate an audience who is assumed to not really care very much about swimming, skeet shooting, weightlifting, and the like.

Of course, the story element of sports is nothing new; like politics, its comings and goings are most easily communicated to the masses as a narrative, not as a series of individual events that have importance simply because they are interesting to watch or understand. And that's strictly "for the masses," as in both sports and politics, the die-hard fans are more than willing to consume the raw events and create their own narratives, without help from ESPN or the National Review.

It's just hard to relax and watch these Olympic Games when you start thinking too hard about the men behind the curtain. Even the opening ceremonies, a monument to obscene and wonderful spectacle, needed a story — the image rehabilitation of China — to carry the coverage. It wasn't enough to simply see this amazing event happen; it had to tie into some larger issue, some big tapestry of narrative that is constantly being weaved by NBC and their many broadcast arms.

I guess I'm glad to know how much Michael Phelps eats, even if I'd never wondered before. It hasn't made me care any more about him or the Olympics, but his athletic achievements — 11 career gold medals! as of this writing! — certainly have.

The Unlympics is an occasional write-up of everything but the actual Olympics surrounding the Olympic Games. Or maybe this is the only one. I haven't decided yet.

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About Matt Springer