Are Rowdy Gaines and Dan Hicks in love? This is the biggest question I have about NBC's trusty swimming commentators. Because boy do those two dudes sit really close together and keep their faces at near-kissing distance. And is it just me or do they tend to gaze lovingly and lustily into each other's eyes, like a longterm couple that miraculously still has the hots for each other? I'm convinced these two are in love. If not actual romantic, sexual love, at least a deep, deep friend-love. It's charming! And a bit mysterious. Much like Olympics commentators over all, no?
They're one of the best Olympics mysteries, these commentators. They're our good friends for two weeks every four years and then they simply disappear back into the ether, always to return on schedule. Take Elfi Schlegel, the familiar voice of gymnastics coverage, for example. What a cipher she is! We know about her Canadian heritage, and her own thwarted bid for the Olympics — a world medalist, she was to compete in the 1980 games in Moscow, but was grounded when Canada sided with the U.S. in the whole Olympics boycott thing — and we wonder if that's why she can be so hard and critical and seemingly turned-on by tears. Don't get me wrong, I love Elfi Schlegel, but her motivations remain elusive. What's your game, Schlegel??
Speaking of turned-on by tears, what's the deal with Andrea Kremer? She's the swimming sideline reporter (and a sideline reporting fixture in the broader sports world) who always asks brutal, awkward questions, even from victorious swimmers. "That must have been distracting," she said in a strangely dry tone to Dana Vollmer moments after Vollmer won a gold medal in the butterfly. One of Vollmer's swimming caps had come off during the race. She'd won anyway, but Kremer seemed determined to sour it anyway by talking about the negative effects of this errant cap. Vollmer was clearly thrown by the curiously probing nature of the question, especially since she had just won. Kremer is even harder on the losers, grimly asking Ryan Lochte "What happened?" after the men's team placed an unthinkable second in the relay. When her questions aren't oddly biting, they're just inane and out of left field, as if she's trying to craft some narrative that only exists in her head. But again, as with ol' Elfi, the Olympics wouldn't be the same without Andrea Kremer's bizarre poolside chats.
Cynthia Potter is another water-based gem, giving commentary on diving that's by turns incisive and John Madden-level basic. She'll deftly analyze the angle of a synchronized diving pair's flips, and then say something like "What they want to do here is get in the water." There's a lot of vamping to do in diving, with frequent breaks between competitors, and Potter only sometimes fills that time well. Play-by-play guy Ted Robinson gamely trots along with her, indulging her sillier moments and listening sagely to her occasional bursts of wisdom. That Robinson, a better than competent spotscaster, seems to have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time only adds to the enjoyment. He's smooth in a generic way and then Potter pops in sternly with the pertinent details, giving Robinson a lesson while she also teaches us at home.
On Saturday I heard an archery commentator say "His strength is really strong right now," and it was glorious! What a silly thing to say. But despite that little bobble — what can you really say to fill all that dead air during archery? — the commentary was, to this untrained ear anyway, insightful and smooth. Where do they find these people? Is there really at least one knowledgeable person who can talk on camera for every sport? They found Jeff Bukantz for fencing, Dawn Lewis for handball, even Steve Kearney for badminton. Granted some of these people are more natural on television than others — Kearney is a bit awkward for sure — but they all ultimately get the job done. And then they retreat back into their regular lives and wait another four years. It's wonderful and almost magical that these people exist, isn't it? And it's fun that we get so used to the sound of their voices over these two weeks, like reassuring, trouser-glad demigods droning at us from the low-lying heavens.
NBC certainly doesn't get everything right with the Olympics. We see too many Americans and not enough other folks, events are aired on a cynical ratings-hungry schedule rather than a chronological one, the Ryan Seacrest segments are so far useless to the point of embarrassment. But you at least have to give them credit for rounding up this ragtag but effective group of announcer weirdos to narrate these games for us. Have you tried forgoing NBC and watching any of the online streams? Y'know, the commentary-free ones? It's impossible! Like turning off the music in a horror movie, taking away the commentators reduces the effectiveness of the entire experience. We need our strange Olympic friends. They're not perfect, but they're trying. And isn't that what these games are all about?