Monday, August 25, 2008


Before the Olympics, I put up a post taking the CBC to task for taking such a low-key approach to the non-sports issues related to 2008's host country China. And while I'm not backing off those opinions, the work of those at CBC Sports who covered and brought us the Games themselves deserve to be congratulated for their excellence.

I once had the opportunity to be present in the broadcast trailer of a World Series game. It's something all of us who finger thesauruses for the right words, ponder notes, try additional takes and cut things a couple of ways to see what fits the music best, should do at least once -- if only to experience the sheer terror of creativity on the fly.

Almost anything that can happen during a live sporting event usually does, often within the tenths of seconds that measure the action. And woe to the broadcast team that doesn't have immediate coverage, perspective and background color at the ready. A shortstop fielding a grounder usually only has to process a couple of possible outcomes. But the Broadcaster faces exponentially more challenges.

Maybe that's why the Chinese faked the fireworks on Opening Night and lip-synched some of the music. The pressure of that kind of moment can bring out the inferiority complex in even the most repressive dictatorial regime. Although I have to say that all that pre-Olympic hype about China using their gymnasts and divers to prove the power of their political system was lost as they deservedly shot themselves in the foot on Day One.

The minute 7 year-old singer Yang Peiyi was displaced by a "perfect" child for the International audience, China let us all know that it might be a force to be reckoned with at table tennis, but it still can't turn out one decent Orthodontist.

And to their credit, in the midst of the Games, CBC reported all this and then got right back to the athletes -- unlike their main competition NBC.

I spent part of the Olympics in the States and it was odd to go from a 24 hour buffet of sport to a pre-crafted Prime Time soap opera. While I could watch Khazak boxers, Korean weightlifters and track stars from countries I probably can't find on a map on CBC, NBC coverage was completely US-centric and maudlin. It robbed me of a lot of things, most notably, the experience of being reminded that no matter the race, creed or political system of the athletes, we all cherish victory and grieve defeat in the same ways.

And while CBC brought me the world in all its diverse similarity, NBC only showed me the USA and not the real one, but the one that best fit a reality show format and a jingoistic philosophy that frankly doesn't exist outside the Washington beltway or LA's Thirty Mile Zone.

For the most part, NBC exhibited all I had said was wrong about the Olympic Games, from detailing swimmer Michael Phelps' endorsement deals (and is anybody really going to believe a guy who downs a 12,000 calorie breakfast when training actually eats Kellogg's Frosted Flakes) or forensically examining the birth certificates of Asian nymphets.

Okay, maybe the Chinese Women's Gymnasts cheated. But I saw African Boxers robbed of points, Platform divers undeservedly penalized and ribbon dancers score tens for unfathomable reasons. But over at NBC, losing that gymnastics medal by a point seemed to be all they talked about. Guys, it's a judged sport. It's as fixed when you win as when you lose. Move on!

And even though NBC had far more channels than the CBC and more online bandwidth apparently available (that Microsoft Silverlight system is truly awesome), CBC consistently found ways to involve me in sports I'd never heard of or was certain had been made up on the spot to fill out 16 days of competition.

I mean, I do get synchronized diving and prancing around with a ribbon on a stick on one level. But now there's prancing events with red ropes and big rubber balls and they've even got horses doing it. When your total medal count can include stuff like that, I started wondering why some countries aren't lobbying for synchronized high-jump, the eights in hammer throw or fencing with broadswords.

Maybe Jacques Rogge should stop crapping all over Usain Bolt for celebrating the most spectacular moment of the games and get his Olympic committees doing what they do best, taking bribes to fill up the schedule with more unfathomable sports.

On the reverse side of that coin, I totally get the broadcast value of Beach Volleyball.

CBC did too. And maybe it was my constantly shifting time zones over the last weeks, but I'm positive they covered every single game in the Women's bracket in full HD close-up. I'd venture this was a test for "Beach Volleyball Night in Canada" which is almost certainly being prepped for whichever night of new dramas doesn't pan out. Something tells me it'll get better numbers than "Little Mosque".

Oh, and guys -- keep the Cheerleaders. Just sayin'...

But the most important thing CBC gave me with its holistic coverage was an entree into the hearts of the athletes of these games. Suddenly, all that nation vs nation, own the podium or be a loser stuff was shown for the nonsense it really is. Whether it was the accessibility of the media or CBC's integrating real athletes into their broadcast teams (Donovan Bailey Rules!), we finally got to experience the sheer joy of competition that these people share.

You saw athletes having fun, respecting each other no matter the final placings and exhibiting all those laudable traits of character and humanity that the Olympics are supposed to be about celebrating.

The credit for some of that goes to three friends of mine who've been working 24 hour days for the last three weeks (not to mention months of prep) most of it in windowless bunkers at CBC HQ. Fellow WGC writer Luciano Casimiri, announcer Tony Daniels (Elvis from "Eerie, Indiana") and sports producer extraordinaire John Whaley were among those behind the stories, highlight packages and sidebars that enhanced the coverage.

According to them, the real behind the scenes heroes were Executive Producer Trevor Pilling, Senior Producer Jeff MacDonald and Producer David Sole, who captained various decks on the ship. Actually, Whaley referred to the CBC team as replicating the Burloak Canoe Club, where experience and energy were shared among a happy few determined to compete with the more than 2900 staffers NBC dispatched to China.

As far as I'm concerned, the small town paddlers more than succeeded and additionally delivered programming that truly reflected the even-handed, inclusive character that represents the best of what Canada is to the world. Guys, Gold medals all around!

As for me, my high point of the Games was seeing Equestrian Eric Lamaze, who lives just up the road, win individual Gold in Show Jumping. This is a guy who would have medalled in Barcelona and Sydney if not for a Cocaine issue and saw other personal problems keep him out of the Athens Games. His win was a perfect example of not only the triumph of the human spirit but the reality that talent can be delayed but never denied.

There's a great Canadian movie in Eric's story. Now maybe somebody at CBC will pick up that torch and carry the excellence of CBC Sports into the Drama department.


wcdixon said...

I split my time fairly equally between CBC and NBC (I do enjoy Bob can you not, c'mon), but watched waaaay more this year(yes, even syncronized diving and ribbon dancing) than I ever have due to one reason and one reason only...HD.

Like that first time you watched your fav movie on a DVD, HD TV took the Olympics to another level. Seriously.

Riddley Walker said...

Mmmmm.. Beach volleyball... ;-)

I tried to stay away from the politics of the whole event, as I pretty much know what goes on in China (we don’t get NBC, thank fuck). Plus, once the games were awarded to Beijing and they got underway, I focused on the athletes. I’m happily cheering on whoever puts in the greatest effort, whether they’re Brits, Yanks, Germans, Kazakhs, etc. etc.

And I completely agree that, with a broader coverage that steers away from jingoism, you really do start to see the inspiring way in which the athletes strive to be the best, but always with the greatest of respect toward their fellow competitors. None of them likes to win at the expense of other athletes.

There may well still be doping scandals, as athletes try to gain a competitive edge over each other, but I’d hazard a guess that a lot of what drives that ‘fall from grace’ is a desire to beat themselves.

London in 2012 simply won’t be able to afford to come close to Beijing in terms of sheer Enormo-Spectacle™, but as long as the athletes are given their chance to do their thing, I’ll be happy to watch.