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That's Just Great, Or Watching The Rio Olympics: David Roth's Weak In Review

Find the struggle and even the strangest events in Rio become familiar. But real greatness, of the Simone Biles/Michael Phelps/Katie Ledecky variety, is something else.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

"There's a Bill Murray tweet that I love," NBC Sports volleyball commentator Kevin Barnett said on Thursday night, about halfway through the U.S. men's team's victory over Brazil. "It says 'Every Olympic event should include one average person competing for reference.'" Barnett's point, which was a totally reasonable and totally redundant one, was that the action onscreen—and Olympic volleyball, it's worth mentioning, plays like a basketball game made entirely of dunks and into-the-fourth-row blocks and as such is not hard to enjoy—would be more easily appreciated if those of us watching could only understand how different and how great the people doing all that spiking and packing and laying-out truly are.


This is not at all difficult to appreciate, honestly, but it's easy to see why Barnett, a former Olympic volleyball player himself, would want to make the point. It is impossible to miss that the athletes in the Olympics—the dumpy archers in their bucket hats and the lithe/oblong secular animorphs in the aquatic events and the pogo-bodied preppies in the volleyball events—are all such physical miracles as to effectively be more-than-human. But also it is the job of Kevin Barnett and every one of the 169 other people that NBC is employing to broadcast these Olympics to reinforce that fact. You can't miss it, but also you can't miss it. While we're pointing out obvious things: every remote control on earth has a mute button on it.

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It's worth noting that the normies-for-reference observation was not something that the beloved star of Quick Change and Ghostbusters 2 was ever moved to tweet. Bill Murray is not on Twitter and the Not Bill Murray who tweeted that remark was in this case recycling without attribution a joke that was nearly four years old.

It's not the worst joke, honestly, but it's an obvious one. Outlandishness and raw unparseable awe are what the Olympics are selling, and what they were selling four years ago. This comes in various different shapes and sizes and uniforms, wet and dry and vertical and horizontal and fast and slow, but the come-on is this and always this: what if someone who looked more or less like a human being did things that humans are not generally able to do? It's bigger than that, but it's not much more complicated. It's an effective hook, but it's also a jarring one.


Absolutely. You got it. Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Under the more accessible pleasures of the games—the sprawling multi-channel scroll of weird sports and the attendant happy discovery that, say, badminton or trampoline is actually fun to watch; the heavy emotional throw-weight that comes with knowing that every competitor's every moment in Rio is one of the most significant they'll ever experience—is something stranger, and a challenge. Most of us don't know how to watch most of these events in a basic sense, which is disorienting in a way that can still be fun.

Table tennis stresses me out in ways I can't quite express; it's like watching people have a screaming argument in a foreign language. Badminton is compelling in the same angular sense that tennis is, but its dorky equipment adds an element of visual slapstick; the shuttlecock might as well make a slide-whistle sound. I know the people doing these things are extremely good at doing them, but also at some point I am forced to take it all on faith. It's abstract art or avant-garde music or an in-joke from someone else's family. It all connects, it all works—well, not fencing, but still—but also these are broadcasts from another dimension.

Much of the fun of watching the Olympics is in that immersive strangeness; there are pleasures unique to this context, just as there are experiences that you can only have in a country that isn't your own. I don't know a blessed thing about gymnastics and am certain that I never will, but I can also attest that you don't need to understand the finer differences between Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman to enjoy watching them do what they do, or to appreciate it. But what they do—what so many of these shockingly brave and brilliant athletes are doing, right now, on some channel or juddering livestream—is not quite what Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky are doing. It's similar, but also it's not; this is a place further out even than we were before. Again, you don't have to comprehend the fine points to see that. But seeing it isn't quite the same thing as understanding it.


Sure, why not. That's a thing people can do, definitely. Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

There's a certain abstraction that comes with watching games you don't understand, and that baseline weirdness is accentuated and sharpened by the fundamental challenge of watching greatness in action. Not the humbler, human, struggling greatness, the fleeting thing that helps fallible, anxious-unto-terrified athletes steal a personal best from themselves; there is, even given the effectively superhuman talents of the people involved, something in this greatness that can be emotionally real to those of us living down here on earth, and can even remind us of the better things about our ground-bound selves. This is less easily felt when we're dealing with the other kind of greatness: the one pushing Ledecky and Phelps not so much through as over Rio's swimming pools, or the one propelling Simone Biles through every twisting moonshot and bringing her down so loud and steady.

That is an uncannier, more opaque thing, and infinitely more rare. More than that, it carries with it the sense that the people doing it are in some very meaningful ways unlike us. And in some ways they are, although in the most meaningful ones they are as human as anyone else. They get bored and they get sad, they forget things and sleep through alarms sometimes and get anxious at parties. But what they do puts them someplace else, and it is impossible to watch them do it—to watch the yellow line that NBC uses to illustrate world-record pace giving futile chase to Katie Ledecky's wake, or to watch Biles suddenly launch and twist her body in ways no one has ever done and then land, steady as it goes, as a smiling teenager—without having to negotiate this.

The unprecedented numbers, here, are somehow the least abstract thing. Simone Biles wins the women's all-around gymnastics competition by a margin that is larger than the combined winning margin in the last nine Olympics, and somehow it 1) makes sense and 2) seems almost to undershoot the accomplishment itself. Michael Phelps breaks a record that's literally folkloric, set by a man named Leonidas who was born before Jesus Christ, and it absolutely scans. These are unreasonable things, and it is not easy to be reasonable about them, or to feel the sort of feelings—the tangle of empathy and urgent awe—that sports usually give us. To watch Ledecky swing a relay race by several seconds in one thermonuclear leg is exciting, but in another way it really isn't; she might as well be riding a Ski-Doo.

None of this happens on its own, of course. For all the gifts that these athletes were born with, the fundamental one that put them where they are—not just atop the podium or ahead of the field, but in this heady and abstract space—was how much they wanted to be there. There are things that have to be tossed away or burned for fuel in this flight to the stratosphere; there is not enough time for frivolous things that many of us choose to lavish with our attention. In both its pursuit and its capture, there is something so inescapably different about greatness of this sort, which came from the same struggling place as its humbler analogue but is also so wildly unlike it. It makes sense that we would watch it differently, and that watching it would feel different in turn. The scrambling pursuit of transcendence is as good a reason to watch or play or care about a game—these games or any other game—as exists; once you can find it, even the most unfamiliar game makes sense. But transcendence itself, transcendence in action and in fact, is something so much stranger.

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