Never has an Olympics seemed so remote, so off the radar and, at the same time, so necessary as a unifying event. As to whether it can unify, entertain and inspire, that’s an entirely different and fraught question.
So, thank heavens for speedskater Isabelle Weidemann, and thank heavens for Anastasia Bucsis being in Beijing to offer commentary on speed skating and interview athletes. Bucsis does it with wit, style and an enthusiasm that seems natural, not made-for-TV. Thank heavens for figure skater Madeline Schizas, and thank heavens for curler Rachel Homan, whose hard stare might be the defining image of these Olympics so far.
It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? The country’s pride in our winter Olympians and the Canadian-ness of it all, the significance of the flag when our athletes win, is compromised; the flag itself compromised in meaning, when used as an anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-reason symbol. It’s hard to forget that our country’s capital is currently occupied and overrun by flag-waving yahoos spewing incoherent rage.
If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, the opening ceremony on TV on Friday gave a person the serious creeps. The spectacle was mildly impressive but coldly so, everything about it overshadowed, not just by COVID-19 protocols, but by the fact that China is loathed as an authoritarian state that blithely engages in human-rights violations.
There was something near-vomitous about the twin acts of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach saying, “You, the Olympic athletes, will show the world how we would look if we all respect the rules” and Chinese performers bowing to President Xi Jinping with the cravenness characteristic of repressive regimes. The CBC morning crew handled the politics of it all delicately, with a sense that everyone just wanted the Games to begin.
And so they did, rather chaotically on CBC, since the broadcaster seems to want viewers to use streaming services packed with ads, and there’s a strong sense that you really had better watch these Games on your phone. That and the time difference with Beijing makes everything awkward. What’s live, what’s taped and what’s a highlight reel of a day-old event is very unclear. And the choices made by CBC are sometimes very weird.
All Olympics, as TV events, become a rush of gibberish spoken by TV hosts and analysts, excessive commercials selling wares as some part of Team Canada’s efforts, and actual sporting events. This is already true of the first weekend. When Canada had its first medal, a bronze for skater Isabelle Weidemann, it was a blessed relief – her lithesome skill and her joy on full display. When Mikaël Kingsbury won silver, not the expected gold, the CBC interviewer was a bit too pointedly obsessed with the loss of a gold. Somebody – you lose track of who is talking – took so much time to explain the history of, and the rules and regulations of, the skiathlon that many viewers must have lost total interest. Yes, it looks gruelling but pointless.
Some events look, to be honest, entirely made-up to fill out the Olympic schedule. The mixed-team relay in speed skating looks like mere chaos. And speaking of chaos, what is with the confusion of images, symbols, colour and decoration on the set where Scott Russell resides in prime-time on CBC?
Oh yes, prime-time. You don’t have to be a broadcasting genius to understand that viewers want figure skating in prime-time on the weekends. It’s entertaining, feel-good stuff.
Thus, it was a surprise to this viewer when, at 9 p.m. on Saturday, CBC’s focus was on the windswept, desolate-looking vista when the snowboarding was unfolding. Turning over to NBC, there it was – a devastatingly good routine by Canadian figure skater Madeline Schizas, whose performance took a shaky Canadian team forward. The NBC pundits were very impressed, but it was an hour before CBC turned its attentions to Schizas, at which point it was past bedtime for many skating fans. By the way, mind you, NBC’s prime-time set makes CBC’s look artsy, NBC’s stage looking like something once used on That ‘70s Show.
No narrative has emerged yet from these Games. However, early U.S. ratings numbers have arrived, and NBC’s viewership across its platforms is down dramatically from the opening days of the Olympics in Tokyo and in Pyeongchang, which presented similar time-difference difficulties. When the ratings emerge here in Canada, a decline might also be reported. After all, in several major urban markets in Canada, people are distracted by incessant protests of rage and worries about their hometowns, not Beijing.
As seen on TV, there have been few bright, positive moments so far. We really need them and we need the meaning of our flag back, please.
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