U.S.-U.C.K.: America's Olympic Snide
[8 March 2006]
For the US, the Olympiad is a chance for TV to turn purposefully patriotic, to remind us of the event's one-time regality, and how far it has fallen since the advent of judge bribing and blood doping.
by Bill Gibron
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
It was spectacle as only a post-millennial member of the USA Olympic team could offer. After an over-hyped display of sheer, unmitigated hubris, followed by a failure so remarkable that even the Buffalo Bills of the '80s may have felt vindicated, the bumbling Bode Miller slumped off the slopes of Turin and into his own personal recreational vehicle. Refusing to answer press questions at first, the 0 for 5 shameful supernova of the 2006 Winter Games needed to figure out a way to bow out quasi-gracefully from what was the biggest media letdown since Geraldo wondered what could be inside a "vault" once owned by Al Capone. Miller's response? He reverted to his regular frat boy mode, arguing that, though he failed to win a single medal for the United States effort in Italy, he got to "party hearty" on an international level.
Miller wasn't alone in his ever-expanding ego trip. A little ditz named Johnny Weir, prone to taking his nickname of "Tinkerbell" far too seriously, stunned skating enthusiasts everywhere by arguing that his poor performance in the same Games was the result of missing the bus to the pavilion. Though he wasn't late (not by a long shot), the need to find alternate transportation to the venue apparently chaffed his fragile pre-competition confidence. Weir basically embarrassed himself, later covering his flopsweat with feigned flamboyance flagrant enough to tempt Liberace to rise from the grave and kick his ass. When asked what he thought of the critical attention his efforts had received, Weir provided a fitting parting shot. His detractors could "eat it," he said, simultaneously ending speculation about Weir's future as a media analyst in the process.
What both of these spectacular disasters shared in common, besides a 2006 Olympics surrounded by expectations both failed and false, was a previous history of athletic accomplishment. Weir remains the US Champion of Men's Figure Skating, a title he's held for over three years. Miller managed the near impossible as well, becoming the first American male ever to hold a Downhill World Title. Each one also had a mammoth marketing path paved directly to their so-called 'amateur' status door, with the promise of more commercial tie-ins and further endorsements just a single precious metal memento away. So when Miller and Weir imploded, the ravenous hounds that love to destroy the deified lined up to gorge on their gracelessly exiting carcasses. There was no chance at redemption, no ability to fix the tainted trail they left in the wake of their fortnight of failure.
And what's even more unfortunate is that they are not alone. Oh sure, the USA walked away with the second most medals of any other country in the 2006 Turin Olympics, a surprisingly hefty total of 25. Germany, in first place, was only four more ahead, at 29. Of that number, nine of America's wins were gold. There were an equal number of silvers, and seven bronzes. Cynics, however, will site that the sole remaining superpower won their accolades in invented competitions that they themselves actually petitioned for and brought to the Games -- snowboarding, for example -- and that the US was easily defeated in the traditional prestige events like hockey, cross country, and sledding. Yet, this assessment is not really fair either. Sasha Cohen surely stumbled, but she still took home the silver in the ladies' figure skating. Other Americans made non-bogus Bode strides in the Alpine events, and even placed in the perplexing sport of curling (winning a first ever medal -- a bronze). From the fabulously freaky Flying Tomato (Shaun White) to the drive and determination of 2002 poster boy Apolo Anton Ohno, not every US team member was taken in by their own personal sense of importance.
Still, that Miller and Weir needed a wake-up call was painfully obvious. In conjunction with the hockey team's horrifying humiliation (professionals and all) and the ongoing spat between speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick over whether or not there is an "I" in "personal glory", the overwhelming belief was that the American team required a 180 proof shot of Shaudenfreude schnapps. Granted, the true sports fan didn't buy into this corrupt conceit. They understood the years of training, the necessary international nuances, and overwhelming pressure that comes from heated, heavy competition. But your casual aficionado saw none of that. They were dazzled by hype and brainwashed by that most devious of cults -- the one of personality. Miller and Weir may have been big time stars in their individual circles, but it took Time and Newsweek, 60 Minutes and the Today Show to open up their pitiable private spectacle to the general public. Thus, the six-ring circus that would become the Turin Games got its rotten ringmaster, and his ineffectual sidekick.
If Sports Illustrated is the Bible of bankable infotainment, then this new rash of self-centeredness is surely one of the signs of the upcoming Athletic Apocalypse. It's a revelation that's been developing since Maurice Clarett tested the draft waters sooner than the prescribed three year waiting period by jumping into the NFL talent pool, and Terrell Owens told his second adoptive team that, unless they coughed up the cash, he would look for greener, and more grateful, pastures. When viewed in light of the NBA's outrageous paychecks, the NHL's recent union busting, and the growing discontent of the college athlete, Miller and Weir are simply the latest converts to the new religion of egocentric reality. Ever since we entered into this new, 21st century, our sports heroes have become the new supermodels, believing in a strange sense of entitlement that uses their physical prowess as an excuse for behavioral excesses and excuses. It was just a matter of time before the "pure sport" of the Games would fall under the influence of this simmering smugness.
The competitive spirit can do strange things to a contestant. It can make them ski drunk (as Miller claimed) or grab their snowboard for a little last-minute flash before crossing the finish line (assuming you don't fall and actually win the race, right Lindsey Jacobellis?). Sometimes, the drive to be the best can result in heroics (Davis' race barrier- breaking performance) as well as histrionics (his ongoing war with teammate Hedrick). In all the confusion and cross-referencing, delayed telecasts become the afterthought to a populace plying the Web for the quickest, earliest results. Other countries may be swept up by the spirit of the Games, but not the US. For us, the Olympiad is a chance for TV to turn purposefully patriotic, for the same old clips from decades past to remind us of the event's one-time regality, and how far it has fallen since the advent of judge bribing and blood doping.
As a country, the United States is sullen and spoiled. When it wins, it's a victory for sportsmanship over politics and policy. But when it loses, it's the bloated, beery bully standing near the awards podium, provoking the players with belches and a barely coherent, bleary-eyed interest. We don't really care if we win -- we just don't like it when anyone else does. And when we fail to live up to our mandated mantle, we sulk like kids at a candy store closing. While it may have been unfair to make Miller and Weir the odd couple of unrealistic expectations, neither of them was rejecting the financial windfall that resulted. Nike promoted Miller with an interactive website transforming him into the tech head choice for a post-modern sports star. Weir, on the other hand, sold himself as the anointed "alternative" to the typical Games guy. Yet neither won -- and more disturbingly - neither seemed to care. Their sponsors must be happy at how well spent those marketing dollars now seem.
There is no need to panic, though. Americans couldn't be bothered. Blame Bode and Johnny, but the "tradition" of the Olympics as must-see national spectacle has lost most of its luster. When quasi-rigged reality shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars can slaughter in the ratings an international showcase of sporting excellence, the notion that our nation needs the Olympiad is about as funny as Miller's zonked out Zen excuses. Maybe back when Russia was the Evil Empire, or the tensions of the planet could be put aside for a few days of healthy rivalry, we actually considered the competition. These days, the Summer Games must be where the real interest is. After all, we can all get behind track and field, tests of stamina and strength, and even the occasional gymnastics. Everything in the Winter Games feels like a great big Nordic novelty, a snow-bound jester's practical competition joke.
So maybe that's why Miller and Weir look so foolish. Not only did they fail themselves, their team, their native country and Madison Avenue investors, but they failed the Olympics themselves. As saviors, hyped to bring viewers to the Italian Alps, they were more Jim Jones than Jesus Christ. With each stunning defeat, each underachieving moment, and press conference brush off, they proved that, as a country, the United States is more inert than it's ever been. Blame whatever you want, but we no longer subsist on national pride. Even in a post-9/11 predisposition towards jingoism and patriotism, we just couldn't get behind our guys and gals in parkas.
Had he won all five medals, Miller would have basked in the glow of his achievement, and people would still pounce on him for his overbearing keg party persona. Weir wearing gold might have created a queer cottage industry, perhaps boosting tolerance in a still largely homophobic society. That in itself would have been worth it. But still, this pair would have been insufferable, splashed across magazines and cereal boxes like the heroes they were preordained to be. A new set of ads would ask if you want to "be like Bode", while Weir would host the second season of Fox's dreadful Skating with the Stars (Ice Capades be damned!). They'd be omnipresent, the media-made sensations getting all the overexposed due they were promised. Perhaps its best they both fizzled out. In defeat, Miller and Weir become a footnote in overall Olympic history. And maybe, by the time 2008 rolls around, their malodorous stench can be aired out of the Olympic ideal -- that is, until the next hype-proclaimed heir-apparent is chosen.