Why is watching the Olympics on television so much more pleasurable than watching any other televised sport—any other television, really?
I am sure it is not better. I could have spent the half hour I gave to the second round of the men’s badminton competition last Monday night (not even the controversial women’s one) on something much more dramatic, and better put together: one of those billion dollar biology shows, or something sharp and American, or any number of the culturally important programmes that I am always missing. But none of them would have been so satisfying, would have given me the same set of feelings as watching an upstart Finn briefly threaten—and then lose, puffing and wrecked—to a springy Malaysian with a shuttlecock for a heart.
My girlfriend is away at the moment, meaning that me and the televised Olympics have been spending a lot of time together. Not that her absence has made a huge difference, I suspect. Our last breakfast together was our first ever in front of the television: docile and quiet, being primed for the order of races coming from Eton Dorney. But her not being there has magnified the sense that the only living things in the flat are me, and even then only in so far as I exist in orbit around the other animated object: our tiny television, which has been pulled out from under the bookshelf and into the middle of the room. It is, without doubt, the current principal life source: a fragile, busy cube of blue hockey pitches, pink trampolines, green javelin fields and orange running track in an otherwise dead space.
My viewing pleasure evolved over the first week of the Olympics. At first, the happiness was in handing over control to whichever competent person was sitting on the BBC’s black sofa, the white triangles of the stadium creeping up behind them. They knew so much better than I did what was going on, and there was real joy in being led: to Lord’s, for the final of the men’s team archery (pudgy, moody Italians conquering taut, disbelieving Americans); to the pool for the heats (that reunion, every four years, like an astronomical return, with the figure of the fastest loser); to the dressage, to see horses immaculately crossing their legs one over the other in the pouring rain of Greenwich. Those early days in front of the television were defined by a sense of abundance, a city of things going on, and trusted guides to take you to the right places, providing “Essential Info” on the difference between the kayak and the C2 canoe. It was, I think, the pleasure of a tourist.
Of course it quickly gave way. One of the beautiful myths of watching the Olympics is the accessibility of the sports: we decipher them instantly, we know a 15.264 beam routine from something really horrid, a 13.761 say, within ten minutes. The BBC’s London 2012 coverage, with its 24 channels (I still don’t really know how to find them); stop-start- rewind internet etc; means that you can quickly cut Barker or whichever powdered lump is sitting on the sofa and get to the real stuff with a few random clicks and presses. This was the second phase of my television experience, steering my way to the untracked corners of the jungle: hauling past hours of stored footage on the internet to watch both semi finals of the women’s 200m backstroke; taking in twenty minutes of the American basketball team (glossy giants, smiling all the time, sinking basket after basket after basket after basket). It was how I came across the fencing: less a sport than a series of collisions between electrified marionettes, wired up to a giant, gameshow set. But wait until they take off their masks! Then it is the Olympics of operatic flourishes, Zorro swishes, Koreans screaming. I dare you not to cry. At the quieter moments of my self-propelled journey through the broadcast Olympics there were times when I noticed there was no commentary at all. I was just watching what seemed like abandoned live feeds, people filing in and out the boxing hall, the underside of the swimming pool waves. It was raw. It delivered a bigger hit than the presented, curated events. It was the pleasure of an addict.
And then there was Saturday night. Which was, among all the other things that it was, a statement of the combined power of the Olympics and television. The Nazis, visual pioneers, noticed it first, and sought to harness the symbolism, to engineer a fusion of Games and Volk. The 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised: to a collection of cinemas in Berlin. The next time it happened, in London in 1948, the culture of amateurism, and the sense of television as an experiment was still strong enough for the International Olympic Committee to turn down an offer of 3000 guineas from the BBC for the broadcast rights.
It was only in the 1960s that television became the dominant means by which the Olympics were experienced. In Rome, the tapes were flown across the Atlantic and processed at Idlewild Airport, in New York, to be broadcast that night by CBS. The same year, a CBS producer called Tony Verna was asked at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley to provide footage of a ski race to the judges, and the idea of the instant replay was born. Instant replay, slow motion, close-ups, montages, post-match interviews: these were the innovations that made television more than a poor substitute for being there – they became the thing itself. The spreading of satellite dishes has meant the spreading of the Games. They were first broadcast in Africa in 1994 and TV rights now bring in 47 per cent of the revenue of the Olympics: $3.9bn in the current quadrennial of Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. In Beijing, TV money brought in ten times the income from ticket sales. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony—with its Oscars’ inspired TV insets—was made for television. Jessica Ennis knew the importance of “putting on a show”—to make a visual, replayable memory—of the 800m race on Saturday night that she did not need to win.
The third, and most advanced, stage of my pleasure of watching the Olympics on television has been knowing that everyone is watching the same thing at the same time. It is the opposite of variety, or being told what to watch, it is the certainty, and synchronicity, of a few moments of mass shared experience. (I wonder, by the way, if that is partly behind America’s backlash against NBC’s coverage: the people are out of sync, the internet, the TV advertising has fragmented them, and they don’t like it). A great part of the deep joy of watching Mo Farah streak around that final lap was shouting “Mo” at the screen and hearing the crowd in the stadium shout “Mo” and shouting “Mo” again and knowing that my girlfriend was in Scotland, shouting “Mo” as well. We all had the same pictures and we all had the same words. And then we watched the same, breathless pro-forma interviews (the pressure, the support, the disbelief) and then we watched it all again on the news because we did not want to turn it off. We did not want it to end. We did not want to be on our own again.
Sam Knight is an associate editor of Prospect. You can find him online here