As the Beijing Olympics ended its first week, it didn't totally surprise us that some 30 million Americans were watching every night, and more via the Internet and NBC's cable networks.
At a time many Americans feel down on their heels about the failing economy and housing market, the huge increase in the cost of gasoline and fuel oil and the war in Iraq, the Olympics have shown us grace and beauty and athleticism that were comforting in a way episodic television usually isn't.
It's easy to be touched by the platonic friendships between most of the competitors in these Games. Losers hug winners, and winners hug their mothers.
We can list the scandals, most of which NBC has handled about right. Matt Lauer could have been a little more explanatory about the augmented fireworks at the opening ceremonies, but this is not the kind of gaffe that would be mentioned if it weren't a slow time for news in August. Ditto with the Chinese girl who was discovered to be lip-synching a song at the opening event.
But both instances were telling examples of an authoritarian Chinese government creating the image it wanted the world to see. That's also why officials bricked in some uglier storefront businesses, rather than let the world see reality. That's why Websites are blocked so the rest of the world doesn't hear too much about protesting Tibetans. A country like China can just create reality. In that kind of world, reportedly pre-pubescent Chinese gymnasts are suddenly really 16, and eligible to compete.
NBC hit the Chinese gymnast age issue. NBC's gymnastics commentator, coaching legend Bela Karolyi, emphatically called the age of some of the Chinese contestants into question, then repeated the claim when Bob Costas asked him about it again. Yet NBC, like the rest of the press as far as we can see, has let the matter drop, like a bad call in a college football game or a missed tag on a stolen base.
Those controversies don't make up most of the Beijing Olympics, which have been filled, joyously for Americans, with the spectacular performances of Michael Phelps, and the excitement of seeing swimmer Rebecca Soni win a gold medal two years after heart surgery. Most of the time, you couldn't imagine a better environment for an advertiser. People who wondered if NBC would have trouble getting viewers into the tent have been answered.
Americans haven't had a lot to cheer about so far this year, and may not have much to cheer about when winter hits, either. It's good to see some winners. This week will be filled with more track-and-field events, where America may shine, and at least some of us run, so there may be more of a natural interest in some events.
That wasn't true last week. Few of us play beach volleyball or perform synchronized platform diving, and yet there were millions of us mesmerized by that. The Olympics, like the standard fare of television, gives us winners and losers, and it seems that regardless of how obscure a sport may be, that simple equation is a spectator sport all by itself. Unlike traditional TV, in the Olympics it usually isn't a matter of good guys versus bad guys, which is why, after a diet of Law & Order, CSI and certainly the evening news, these Games so gently pull us in.