August 02, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Centennial Olympic Games

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
We gave it a B-

A frail Muhammad Ali accepting the Olympic torch from swimmer Janet Evans. Little colors-of-the-rainbow Atlanta kids dressed in — what? — spandex Slinkys? The excitable Tim Daggett: ”Wow, those Chinese gymnasts are dropping like flies!” A shot of an athlete’s mother sporting red-white-and-blue nail polish. The Dream Team. Hey, did ya know The Jeff Foxworthy Show is moving to NBC? Tight security. Rowdy, Summer, Elfi, John Tesh. Delta. Coca-Cola. GE, we bring good things to life. Hey, did you know Caroline in the City is moving to Tuesdays on NBC? USA! USA! USA! Over to you, Greg Gumbel. Back to you, Bob Costas.

Five days, at this writing, into the Centennial Olympic Games — five days when more people are watching NBC than anything else on television, five days when movie theaters are weathering dips in their box office receipts as moviegoers stay home and tune in — and one thing is clear: These are the official games of the corporate-sponsored, product-endorsing, flag-waving, terrorism-skittish, attention-deficit-disordered, TV-centric American 1990s.

Who would have thought the 1984 Los Angeles Games — the last Olympics to be held on home turf — would have taken on such a burnished nostalgic glow? Remember the razzle-dazzle of that Reagan-era Hollywood production? The City of Angels itself swept all racial and economic rifts aside in an epic display of money, power, and show business. The Olympics were about the idea of America, the movie of America, in which happy fans chanted USA! and stars — like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Mary Lou Retton — were born. America looked outward. The Games were presented as a party, and America the Bountiful was the host.

Twelve years later, TV mirrors a different country. The fresh horror of TWA Flight 800, which went down in a fireball two nights before the opening ceremonies, added its own somber layer of grief to the proceedings, but the tone and pace of the coverage had already been set: choppy, chirpy, commercial — a mind-meld of network and company sponsorship. Indeed, in its coverage of the Atlanta games, we see NBC’s interpretation of the reality of present-day America. And what we see is a country turning inward, huddled with its television sets, dreaming of BMWs, Reebok athletic shoes, and the fall season of Must See TV.

Impressions overlap as they race by: the underdramatic, overloaded opening ceremonies; the overkill of network self-promotion; the stridently excited chatter of the commentators for whom, apparently, no silent picture of a spectacular, striving athlete is ever so thrilling that it can’t benefit from an assist of lightweight commentary.

Speaking of commentary, where is it when we need it? Women’s gymnastics, one of the most popular and glamorous events, is by now solely the province of tiny, unsmiling young women who are overbred to be as hipless and breastless as children, hustled and displayed by their famous coaches like show dogs. Yet when a Chinese gymnast slips and bursts into tears or a poodle-sized Romanian woman-child finishes a breathtaking routine without ”sticking it” perfectly, thereby losing precious fractions of a point, the NBC crew isn’t commiserating with compassion — they’ve already moved on to the American girls. Next!

Where is the commentator who gives ongoing attention to the performances of athletes who aren’t American and questions the concept of a ”dream team” made up of millionaire professional basketball players up to their eyeballs in product-endorsement deals? Who recognizes the beautiful bloom of women’s basketball and has a sense of the glory of swimmers, the majesty of runners, or the surrealism of soft drink ads?

At least one broadcaster understands the bigger picture. Bob Costas is the bright figure of wit and perspective at the Atlanta games. He knows when he’s sitting in front of an NBC backdrop so garish it begs for comment. He knows when hype is eclipsing reality. (He probably knows that NBC’s proud-as-a-peacock strut as the No. 1 network is veering perilously close to preening.) Costas is so calm and sane as master of ceremonies that I only wish he could be everywhere at once, calming down hysterical commentators, comforting unstrung athletes, and soothing hyperventilating boosters. I wish he could calm us, too, reminding us that the price of watching the world’s finest athletes on television need not mean buying the company line — any company line. We are not what we eat, or fly, or wear, or watch on TV. At its best, the Olympics remind us that we have it in us not just to watch, but to be. B-

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