Friday, February 17, 2006

Kiss and Cry in Torino

Is figure skating a sport?

Here's the answer: it doesn't matter, because I had to watch it last night anyway. I would aruge that if you put on rouge and wear sequins to "compete," then it's not a sport, but perhaps I'm just a disgruntled old-timer. Ten years from now, snowboarders will probably dress up like characters in the Pirates of Penzance and I won't like that, either.

Last night was the first time I had seen any Olympic coverage from "Torino" (that's in "Italia," in case you're wondering). It may sound strange, not watching the Olympics, but watching the Olympics in America is a nighmare. There's coverage on primary channels and sub-channels and local access channels, but if you want to see it in high-definition, your only choice is NBC. And watching NBC coverage is like watching a four-hour episode of The View.

Here's the thing about American Olympics coverage: it's for women. One hundred percent, totally packaged for the female viewer. It's a prime-time soap opera. If you're an Olympic athlete who grew up without indoor plumbing, in a broken home, with a mother who hooked to buy food, and you have a mysterious blood disease, then NBC wants to have your love child.

Here's the other thing: unless you win a medal, or were supposed to win a medal and didn't, America apparently does not give a shit about you. NBC has four hours of painfully overproduced coverage to show you each night, and except for figure skating, all they're going to show are the events where Americans won medals. That means the first week has been dominated by coverage of fringe events that didn't even exist ten years ago, like snowboarding down stairs.

Figure skating, though, is different. Women, for reasons entirely unknowable to men, love figure skating. And since it's a soap opera, less than one hour of skating will take four hours to show--episodes, you see. With cliffhangers.

Men can't do that. We sit down to watch a game. The game starts and we watch it to conclusion. There's no other way to do it. Watching NBC is like watching thirty movie trailers with commercials after each one.

Here's all you need to know about how NBC covers figure skating. In a professional football game, there are twenty-two athletes on the field at the same time, and one play involves dozens of strategic decisions and individual confrontations. One play could be replayed thirty times before everything that happened could be dissected. And professional football is covered by, at most, three announcers in a booth.

For Olympic figure skating, there are four.

And they rarely, if ever, shut up. Scott Hamilton, who I strongly believe is an elf, has more enthusiasm for a broken skate lace than My Little Pony has for rainbows. And man, is he loud. I know there are three other people talking in the booth, but it's almost impossible to hear any of them. Here's what a typical section of commentary sounds like:
"He's coming up on a triple milk cow with a quadruple bypass."
"Very solid jump and he nailed the landing."

When announcers say (and I'm quoting) "He's catlike, but with a wicked style," I'm not sure if they're talking about figure skating or a Broadway musical. Or maybe they're talking about both, and that might be the secret to understanding figure skating, because it has what are usually called "high production values."

Male Olympic figure skaters, as far as I can tell, have three choices for their costume. They can dress up as one of three characters: a flapper, a pirate, or a bullfighter. Then they jump like crazy for one minute before they enter the part of the program they call I'm a Little Flower Reaching for the Sun, followed by another minute of jumping.

I have a suggestion to make the skating more dramatic: add singing. Mike that bullfighter up, then add singing as a mandatory element.

It's a show, after all. So why not add show tunes?

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