Think of a sports experience you've had in your life. Any sports experience: playing in a basketball game or running a race; nursing a hangover on your couch while watching golfers squint their way, so very slowly, through the Accenture Match Play Championship; attending a college football game or hitting a tennis ball against a wall or watching a bunch of boiled-looking sports columnists bickering halfheartedly about Tim Tebow on ESPN, or even walking by a pod of cigarette-smoking women in leggings and oversized hockey jerseys pacing outside a hockey arena’s players' entrance in hopes of scoring some quick, demeaning sex with a gap-toothed NHL defenseman named Gord or Pavel. The Olympics is the opposite of that.
This does not necessarily make it better or worse than those things. It just means that the Olympics are incalculably and intentionally and irreducibly stranger than anything else in sports. Some of this has to do with the strange sports that fill out the average Olympics—not just things like swimming and sprinting, which most Americans care about on a strictly quadrennial basis, but sports such as archery and badminton and team handball, which no one ever really cares about, ever. Much of what's jarring about the Olympics, though, is just the contemporary Olympics being the contemporary Olympics—that is, an implausibly, horrifyingly expensive, relentlessly over-branded event choreographed by the globo-elite version of your khakified local Chamber of Commerce type.
If the pageantry/vibe component of the Olympics always looks and feels weird—the aggro-banker sublimation and queasily inauthentic hail-fellow bombast of Mitt Romney's 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games; the overleveraged under-preparation and palpable oh-shit desperation of Athens in 2004; the creepo authoritarian choreography and smiley-face-at-gunpoint vibe of Beijing in 2008—much of the blame probably belongs to the super-elites steering the games, and to the brands seeking to repurpose it into profit. It takes a special kind of grandiosity and colossal high-handedness to run an Olympics—Romney, for instance, clearly regards it as the signal accomplishment of his life, to the point where he wrote a fatuous self-tribute to his work on the games.
The people behind the Olympics in London—the ones Romney shitted on just before the opening ceremony, as a demonstration of his uncompromisingly avant-garde approach to conversation—took a more authoritarian approach to the enterprise. They seized upon the whole world coming together in the spirit of friendly competition as an opportunity to subject local poor folk to ruthless economic terraforming and stick some surface-to-air missiles atop residential buildings and write off the purchase of new super-advanced surveillance equipment, then topped it all with a mascot that can best be described as a Surveillance Penis. The ubiquitous advertising's attempt to leverage the legitimate athletic transcendence of the games into an opportunity to treat your Inner Champion to a fresh set of dri-fit workout gear or a truck is almost tasteful in contrast to the cheery creepery of the games' bigger aesthetic. But.
But, as dreary and familiar and unappealing as all this bloat and corn is, the Olympics also deliver a happy counterpoint to all that in the competitions themselves. If the Olympics as a production is a baffling bummer—a $10 billion children's movie comprised mostly of product placements, crafted by alien robots that don't know what children are—it remains one of the weirdest and most bracing and fun sports-watching experiences imaginable. Thanks to the magic of tape-delay, it's always on; that some events also pre-empt CNBC's usual programming, and so spare the world a few hours of stock tips and steak-faced brokers bellowing various demonstrably wrong cocaine libertarianisms, is a nice bonus.
And thanks to the fact that the Olympics consists mostly of athletes we barely know doing sports we almost never watch, spending a few hours with the Olympics is challenging—to the extent that anything that can be done supine and drowsy on a couch qualifies as "challenging"—in a way that sports-watching seldom is. Due to lack of practice and lack of familiarity with the rules and players and strategies, we don't quite know how to watch diving or volleyball or gymnastics or rowing or steeplechase, which moves us out of our familiar sports fan zone of remove. In a way that watching sports almost never is, watching the Olympics is weird, which is a sharp and frankly pretty awesome contrast to a sports scene that's generally Botox-smooth and predictable, and to the slick, disciplined inauthenticity of the Olympics' presentation. For all the Olympics' bizarre and faintly inhuman globo-pomposity, the events themselves deliver a knockout of a counterpoint—difficult sporting things done brilliantly by athletes we mostly don't know, and done with an unpredictability and grace that upends all the graceless predictability of the plutocrats and brands putting the party on.