Olympics isn't the only contest on TV

Gail Pennington
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

From "swifter, higher, stronger" to "outwit, outplay, outlast," wherever you turn, February is a huge month for competition on television.

—The Winter Olympics (continuing through Feb. 28 on NBC) are off to a fast start in the ratings.

—"American Idol" is rocking and rolling, with viewer voting beginning next week.

—"Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" is on fire in Samoa.

—"The Amazing Race" stepped off Sunday for its 16th chase around the world.

We'll watch just about anyone compete, apparently, and reality TV competitions remain a hot television genre. Hairstylists snip for success on "Shear Genius." Fashion designers are in one day and out the next on "Project Runway." When you think about it, even "The Bachelor" is a competition, as fans root for their favorite to grab the gold ring.

It's a long way from the Olympics to "The Bachelor," but competitions of all kinds push Americans' buttons. The world loves winners, but we in particular appreciate a good try. Go for the gold and even if you miss, you can win our hearts, as long as you give it your best effort.

That's one reason the appeal of the Olympics goes beyond sport, as we watch athletes who have trained all their lives vie with others who have done just the same.

When you think about it, "American Idol," which opens its semifinal round Tuesday on Fox, might be considered the Olympics of singing competitions. There, too, young people with a dream vie with others who share that same dream. On "Idol," though, the viewers, not judges, ultimately hang the gold medal around one person's neck.

The 12 female semifinalists sing live Tuesday, followed by the men Wednesday. Two from each group taste the agony of defeat when they're eliminated Thursday.

Nobody would confuse "Survivor" with the Olympics, although when NBC was bellyaching about losing money on the Winter Games, surely it crossed someone's mind to follow, say, snowboarding rivals with reality-TV cameras as they slept and ate and trained together.

For its 20th edition, "Survivor" rounded up "heroes" and "villains," some of whom are playing the game for the third time. Ratings for the Feb. 11 season premiere were strong, with 14.7 million people tuning in.

Also off to a strong start: the competition. Returning players should know what to expect, but they might not have predicted an initial challenge so physically strenuous that two people were injured, although both toughed it out after medical attention.

In addition to physical competition, "Survivor" also adds the challenge of surviving the elements, building your own shelter, making fire, fighting dehydration and guarding against backstabbing teammates. Try that, Olympians.

Nobody on "Survivor," though, has to catch a plane to Chile when they somehow think they're going to China. That's "The Amazing Race," which shows its viewers the world at backpack level.

If our Olympic athletes make us proud, our "Amazing Race" teams sometimes embarrass us, while making us wonder how well we'd be doing in their place.

Might we also briefly confuse one five-letter C country (Chile) with another (China)?

Unable to obtain Chilean pesos, would we decide Brazilian reals would do?

Would we, too, thank a South American taxi driver in some random language ("Danke")?

Told to take a funicular, would we simply walk, because we didn't know what a funicular was?

That's the charm of "The Amazing Race": It's a competition for all. You could never say that about the Super Giant Slalom or any Winter Olympics event. Except possibly curling.

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