The London Olympics are a festival of athletics for athletics’ sake, a carefully choreographed celebration of branding, and an international pissing contest among global powers. They are all about pageantry and control—for the duration of the games, London has essentially transformed itself into a totalitarian state. Anthems will be played, what would normally be an unseemly amount of nationalistic chest-beating will be allowed, and at the end of it, the countries with the most money to blow on training programs will emerge at the top of the medal leaderboard. You can be upset by any or all of this, or proud, but by the end you’ll almost certainly be tired by the whole fucking thing. That’s because the Olympics are amazingly boring.
We don’t normally watch gymnastics and weightlifting and swimming and diving and dressage and the triathlon, because these things aren’t any fun to watch. At the highest level, they’re incredibly impressive athletic feats that tax the human body to its utmost limits, but so what? When I’m sitting on my couch, my awe at an olympian’s physical prowess wears off after a minute; after that, I have no idea which 14-year-old gymnast is doing what better, or how, unless one of them falls, and from the couch, the triathlon is nothing but a couple hundred people doing something horrible I’m glad I’m not doing. The TV angles on swimming reduces racers to splashes which look like they’re all basically even with each other. Running events are either thrilling and over in ten seconds, or insufferable chores that go on and on and are about as exciting as watching grass grow (sex joke goes here, amiright ladies?). Archery sounds cool until you see it. Ditto for fencing. Rowing doesn’t even sound cool. Dressage is just watching horses walk around. Volleyball and ping pong are surprisingly entertaining, in a stoned-at-2-PM-what’s-on-TV kind of way, but watching an entire game (or set, or whatever) gets dull about the time the weed wears off.
NBC—the only place to watch the Olympics in the US—knows that it has a boring product on its hands. That’s why, for as long as I can remember, they’ve been “profiling” notable athletes to make the games seem interesting. You know what I’m talking about—the torrid tales of Overcoming Adversity, the Moments of Defeat that Every True Champion goes through before attaining the Ultimate Reward of Olympic Gold. One athlete will have lost his brother and training partner to a tragic accident, another will have made it out of poverty, one used to be fat… the list goes on. Maybe these “humanizing” features make most people tear up and spontaneously place their hands over their hearts out of sheer patriotism, but they make me unpleasantly cynical and bitter. “Oh, great, ANOTHER overachiever who has beaten the odds,” I’ll say while rolling my eyes. “I wonder how many of his parents are dead. I bet we’ll find out!” That relentless uplift gets more tiring than watching lithe 14-year-olds in leotards spin around a bar.
I always wonder about the athletes who aren’t quite profile-worthy, the moments that never make it to air—the hurdlers who train a bunch and go home every day and still live at their mom’s, and that’s pretty much it; or Michael Phelps’s long, rambling story about that one time he ripped a super big bong hit after nine beers because YOLO, bro. Just like with all sports, there have got to be those mundane, stupid, obscene, funny moments in between the sepia-tinged Moments to Remember, but we can’t see those unless we’re watching online at like, 5 in the morning. The Olympics is all about totalitarian-state-style control, remember, and if there’s one thing those states don’t tolerate, it’s a sense of humor.
Despite that dullness, people will watch the Olympics in droves. Maybe that’s because these summer months are a sports desert—all you’ve got is baseball, which is like, white trash fencing, and people on ESPN droning about NFL training camp—but more likely, it’s because Americans will cheer for a nun-sledgehammering contest so long as one competitor is wearing stars and stripes. The “fun to watch” component of sports takes a major beating when the sport in question is something as esoteric and incomprehensible as, say, diving, but that hardly matters when old-school tribalism kicks in. Who cares that we barely understand the rules to half the sports, let alone the judges’ decisions? Who cares that these sports have judges? (Just think about that.) Who cares that NBC decides to televise only the events Americans can win at and not the events you’re curious about? Who cares that the narrative around the sports is as fluffy and mind-flattening as anything this side of the Lifetime Channel? You don’t turn on the Olympics because you think it’ll honestly be more entertaining than Seinfeld reruns. You come for the nationalism, and you stay because you’ve got nothing better to do.