My Olympic Viewing Strategy

More

In the runup to the Olympics, I always think, "Why don't I just read some good books in the next few weeks, rather than spending time on these oddball sports?" But when the saturation coverage begins I always get hooked on the oddball sports and their related mini-dramas. And of course four years ago, when we were living in Beijing, the Olympics and their ramifications for and about China were genuine news -- as I tried to chronicle day-by-day as they went on. Two moments from those games that I will remember:

IMG_5063A1.jpg- Good-heartedly nationalistic cheering during the China-US baseball game, at right, diminished not in the least by the fact that most of the Chinese crowd (and some on the Chinese team) seemed only vaguely aware of the rules, principles, and who's-ahead / who's-behind fine points of baseball. These young ladies were happily cheering during a big U.S. rally. 

- Watching from courtside as, in real time, Roger Federer taught himself the game of doubles in tennis. He had just been knocked out of the singles, was obviously disappointed, and through the first few games of his (and Swiss teammate Stanislas Wawrinka's) semifinal match against the favored Bryan Brothers of the U.S. he muffed several points and seemed the least at-ease player on court.

But then he woke up, and by late in the first set he seemed simultaneously (a) to get mad at the prospect of losing again, and (b) to learn from one point to the next where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do as a doubles team-member. He and Wawrinka won the first set in a tie-break and rolled on to a straight-sets win -- and then the gold medal, in the final match against Sweden. Watching a great tennis intelligence applied to a new situation, in real time, was one of the most thrilling sports experiences I have had.

IMG_5044a!.jpg

Other brief Olympics-2012 points:

- I'll have a good excuse not ever to check into Twitter for the next two weeks, nor visit the front pages of the NYT or WaPo, since I like maintaining the antiquated fiction of "suspense" when watching events on TiVo in the evening.

- Rowdy Gaines was a great swimmer in his day, and it is interesting to hear his commentary. But often his explanation for why a certain swimmer won or lost is, "her mistake here was that she didn't open up a big enough lead." Great point! Often a football team's mistake is that it doesn't score enough points.

- Because my wife has been since childhood a fanatical and accomplished swimmer, we log many hours hearing what Rowdy Gaines and his poolside colleagues have to say. The Olympics bring out the chauvinism in everyone, including me; but because my wife has done an unusually large number of her recent laps in Australia, as explained here, we cheer for the Aussie swimmers almost as hard as for the Yanks. We figure the Chinese swimmers already have a billion people cheering for them. Each time an Australian victory is announced and Gaines et al refer to "that swimming-crazy country Down Under," she looks at me reproachfully: Why aren't we living in a swimming-crazy country, rather than a [fill in the blank]-crazy country like our homeland?

- I could say a million things about the contrast between the opening ceremonies in Beijing and London. (And I said two or three things yesterday in an NPR segment with Guy Raz, and may say a few more in the next day or two.)

The main theme would be, four years ago we saw a government intent on showing that it had arrived, by demonstration every sort of "hard" capability: power, precision, magnificence, mastery, control. This year we saw a system comfortable enough with itself to put on a show that was jokey, irreverent, and sometimes simply chaotic and weird. (Hospital beds lighting up to spell "NHS"??? Mary Poppins vs. Voldemort??) Other illustrations of the difference:

  • t1port.girl.cctv.jpgthe English schoolboy who sang "Jerusalem," complete with allusion to "dark Satanic mills," as compared with the young Chinese girl whose opening-ceremony song was lip-synched. The girl on camera was thought to be cuter, whereas the song we actually heard was from a girl with a better voice but who was deemed less adorable (the heard-but-not-seen one at right).
  • the post-torch-lighting fireworks going off all over town, which were CGI'd into the telecast of the Beijing opening ceremony, versus apparently real ones in London. We had our doubts about those in Beijing even before the CGI news came out. We were living in a part of Beijing some of the fireworks would have been going off, but we saw nothing out our apartment window even as the TV screen was erupting in festive lights.
  • the ethnic variety of modern London was built into the cast of Danny Boyle's opening ceremonies. In Beijing, the 56 different ethnic groups officially recognized as part of the Chinese human mosaic were each represented by a young person in ethnic costume at the opening ceremony -- but most of the people playing those roles were revealed later to be part of the >90% dominant Han ethnic group. (The U.S. counterpart would be the Swedish-American actor Warner Oland cast in movies as Charlie Chan.)

There is a bigger theme here, which returns to the main question about China I have been trying to figure out over the years. That is when -- or whether -- the people in charge of China's system will show the confidence that allows them to be something other than control freaks whose paranoia is at odds which much of the ingenuity, humor, and creativity that characterizes much of the Chinese population, and whose hyper-earnest "We are strong, look on us and tremble" presentation of national greatness to their own people and the world actually conveys the opposite message. When we can see a Chinese opening ceremony with their counterpart of Mr. Bean sitting at the organ or the head of state acting in a joke video (as Queen Elizabeth did with Daniel Craig), we'll know that the country has arrived.

I had intended to make this whole post about some very interesting aviation videos. I'll save them for later today. In the meantime, don't tell me who's won what races.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In