The Summer Olympic Games come but once every four years, something we've been reminded of, implicitly, every three and a half minutes as NBC's television coverage hurries from one event to another. This time, the producer seems to say, we're going to see everything; but in his or her wild attempt to show everything of importance at the games, we've seen nothing. There has been no opportunity to linger over the sports we see little more than once every four years--such as volleyball, gymnastics, and sprint cycling--because we're too busy going from one to the other to the other. In its urgent attempt to place us everywhere at the games, NBC has placed us nowhere so much as in one place on the couch in front of our television sets. There is no attempt to place us in Seoul, South Korea (which, since the North Koreans decided to boycott the games, is now officially referred to as simply "Korea"), no attempt to set us in the stands at these various events. The games are being produced by a group of compulsive channel changers who believe they are normal in having an attention span of 200 seconds. It's the Olympics as media event--like the presidential race as media event--something so overblown and self-involved that it bears little resemblance or pertinence to reality.
So why do we come back, again and again? We were all reminded of why when Greg Louganis survived his crack on the head in springboard diving to come back and win a gold medal. Louganis is the sort of athlete in the sort of event that the Olympics are now about. Freed from the restraints of "amateurism"--which became difficult to define and unpleasant to enforce--the Olympics have become no longer a competition of talented kids, but a comparison of highly trained, professional artists so precise in what they do that it takes experts to tell the difference between a gold medal and tenth place. This was not the case in diving--where Louganis was obviously the class of the field--but it was the case in gymnastics, where the Soviet men were so amazingly and equally talented that even the experts couldn't tell the difference between a gold-medal and bronze-medal performance and gave away three golds. Louganis is a beautiful athlete, and he would probably agree that he is working at a level where what is normally considered a sport becomes an art, but with his accident late in the diving preliminaiies all the problems and difficulties that these athletes are trained to cover up as a matter of course--all the training that allows one to step up on a balance beam and perform the same old routine spontaneously, as if it were a stroll in the park--this gloss was stripped away and we saw the sport in all its difficulty and its danger. We were immediately reminded of an Eastern-bloc diver who cracked his head on the solid, ten-meter-high platform while doing a similar dive four years ago. He fell limp into the water and died. Louganis, as we all know, returned to give us an early and exemplary reminder of what the Olympics are about--beauty, skill, courage, and of course that old war-horse grace under pressure. The dive immediately after his accident was a difficult, well-performed dive that scored the highest of the day.
We were also reminded of what the Olympics are about in conversation with a fellow at work. This guy is, like many of us, a balding, aging, working Joe whose conversation is normally as dull as the shine on a sidewalk, but one day we got him talking about the U.S. swimmer Janet Evans. Evans's swimming style is uniquely oddball. She has been described as looking like a child's windup bath toy, for she propels herself through water with a straight-armed thrashing that would resemble someone swimming for her life against the tide if it weren't so orderly and controlled. Anyway, we were talking with this fellow about what a joy it was to watch her swim when he came back saying that he'd seen a slow-motion, underwater depiction of Evans that showed that beneath the water level her stroke was the picture of efficiency--naturally perfect. This we hadn't seen, but this normally dull fellow had, and had appreciated it well enough to convey it to others. So no matter how hyper or compulsive it was, the coverage occasionally presented miracles.
Patriotism, of course, is a thorny subject for the Olympics, and we were pleased to find in Evans--the first real U.S. heroine of the games--everything good in what this country usually roots for in an athlete: she is small, making her a natural underdog, and her previously described stroke makes her unique in a field of automatons. Athletics at this level have become so studied and mannered that almost everyone swims alike and runs alike and jumps alike, so that it turns out that the winners frequently seem to be the ones who best re-create the computer designs on how to do it right. This is not the case with Evans. Meanwhile, her diminutive size also set her apart from the crowd, and one of the joys of the games was--again, at work--when a bunch of us gathered around the television to watch Evans swim. Evans is a distance swimmer--amazingly energy-efficient, we have read, with muscles that work well on anaerobic respiration--and with her wild stroke she kept pulling away from the East Germans only to lose the lead in the flip turns at the ends of the pool. Underwater pictures showed Evans daintily tapping the wall with her toes, while the East Germans pushed off with their beefy linebacker's legs and closed the gap. When Evans finally pulled away on the final lap and won, then slithered across the ropes to hug her various competitors, we were laughing, because "our little girl" with the Huck Finn swimming stroke had beaten the large, unattractive, programmed East Germans. That's patriotism; Janet Evans is, to steal from a beer commercial, "an American original."
Yet the coverage keeps pulling us away from these very human moments, first by inflicting what are supposed to be "human moments" upon us--such as when we see fathers and mothers or husbands or wives sitting in the stands, watching some loved one--then by the persistent interruptions, both to cover other events and to pay the bills with advertisements. One of the most hypnotic aspects of the Olympics is that most firms that have bought heavily into Olympic advertising time have produced their own special Olympic ads, which reappear again and again. Worst of the bunch by far are the Budweiser ads, which take gold and silver for obnoxiousness. The Spuds MacKenzie Olympic tie-ins take silver; but the worst, the most offensive ad is the bottled patriotism of someone walking into a bar, ordering a Bud, and getting emotional as a black boxer receives his gold medal and tears up at the playing of the national anthem. If this advertisement starred George Bush instead of some unknown actor it might at least be interesting as artifact. The most interesting competing ads are for Gold Star and Samsung electronics. Both use art to sell their products, but Gold Star uses stuffy, operatic music and high-art objects such as a Picasso painting. The Samsung ad shows a guy changing channels on late-night TV (stoned, or am I reading into it?), who finds that his Samsung channel-changer also works on a huge television screen outside in the street. We must have seen this ad 20 times during the Olympics--with its wide-world pop-culture film clips of Godzilla and Bullwinkle the Moose--but we still get an indescribably good feeling every time the guy settles his head against his hand to watch Alfalfa sing "I'm in the Mood for Love." What a great ad; what a near-perfect metaphor for the games as they've been brought to us this year. Give it a 10 and the gold medal.
The Summer Games bled over from summer to fall this year, and to complete the transition we'll offer a little preplayoff analysis on the upcoming autumn classic, the World Series. This season, again, ran out without benefit of any actual pennant race. The New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics left their competition in the dust, while the first-place finishes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox were merely academic after a point. First of all, pity the dethroned champions, the Minnesota Twins, who improved their team and their record (in spite of a stupid trade with the Saint Louis Cardinals) and yet are finishing in the teen games out of first. The American League East offered the closest thing to a pennant race, but really after the Red Sox fired John McNamara and went on a tear for Joe Morgan they were the odds-on choice to win.
My picks are the A's in the American League and the Mets in the National, with the A's taking it all, but I believe also that as in 1986 poor pennant races will pay off with wild playoffs. The Athletics have an amazingly strong lineup, top to bottom, with known quantities like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Carney Lansford, and Dave Parker mixing with reclamation projects such as Luis Polonia and Dave Henderson. Their pitching staff relies heavily on Dave Duncan's pet projects, such as Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Storm Davis, and Rick Honeycutt--any of whom could have been had for a song just two years ago. They'll win, because they have an excellent manager who will leave either Dave Johnson or Tom Lasorda scratching his head, and because their pitching is as deep as their lineup, but as a power team they are prone to a team with hot pitchers (i.e., if Roger Clemens or Dwight Gooden or Orel Hershiser gets hot, or if Bruce Hurst or Ron Darling gets in a Mickey Lolich '68 groove). The Mets will beat the Dodgers, as they have all year long, but they will miss Bob Ojeda. The Dodgers are barely over .500 against lefties this year, but all the Mets have to offer in the way of left-handed starters is the inconsistent Sid Fernandez.
Let's say As in six, Mets in seven, and Athletics as champions in five games. Sleepers in playoff and series MVP contention: Dave Henderson of the A's and Randy Myers of the Mets. Henderson would have had the game-winning RBI in both the clinching playoff and series games in '86--if the Red Sox could have found a third out. As for Myers, a pet player of mine for a while, he is ready to come into his own. He paces the mound with the compulsive ties of a caged badger, rubbing the ball with his back to the plate, striding to the rubber, getting the signal, firing either his 95-mile-an-hour fastball or his 85-mile-an-hour slider, and receiving the ball and starting the circle anew. The Dodgers' weakness for left-handers will be shown in the late innings of close ball games. Pick goats: Dave Johnson and Lee Smith.