Thursday, September 04, 2008

Watching Beijing from Sydney

I'm a little behind the times; the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing ended two weeks ago. However, I can't let the opportunity of reporting on my first Olympics abroad pass me by.

And for whatever reason, I was more "into" the games than I've ever been before. As a little girl, I'd always watched the gymnastics and ice skating intently, and in college (2000 summer games in Sydney), the girls in my dorm couldn't get enough of Ian Thorpe, or, the "Thorpedo," as he's known in Australia. Anyway, we spent our evenings and weekends watching obscure sports instead of our regularly-scheduled dose of nerdlicious competition, Jeopardy (reruns, so no loss).

I saw for the first time a synchronized swimming event and marveled not at how they maneuver without touching the bottom of the pool, but wondered instead how their makeup didn't smear. I came to understand the rules of handball and why falling ungracefully is such a huge part of the game, cheered for Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, watched a bronze medal women's softball game (Japan vs Australia) that should have won a gold for most boring 3.5 hours of Olympics and found rhythmic gymnastics crinky (creepy + kinky).

Most importantly, I watched the Olympics from an Australian perspective: Channel 7 coverage complete with wacky breakfast program called 'Yum Cha' (Australian for dim sum) and Australian advertising. My American friends and I whined about missing NBC's Bob Costas and the human interest stories about the athletes ("she left home at the age of three to train and has only seen her mother once a year since...")

My biggest complaints were that the Australian commentators were uninformed and that the network jumped from a heat of one event to a semifinal of another and then to a bronze medal match of another just to capture Australian athletes. My friend Hannah, who was visiting from NZ, mentioned that the American networks must do the same to feature our own athletes and this is true, but I feel NBC does a better job of showing all the top contenders in a given event before moving on to the next.

The opening ceremonies began at 10pm Sydney time so I was nodding off by the time Bulgaria paraded into the arena three hours later. We knew we would miss the Australian and US entrances so we recorded the NBC coverage via Tivo and Slingbox. Despite the commercials and fact that they waited until prime-time on Friday to air it, NBC's coverage of the opening ceremonies were superior to the Australian equivalent.

While the Australian commentators had some facts about the various national teams, their knowledge was sketchy at best. NBC, on the other hand, had a different approach. When a country strolled into the Bird's Nest, its name, flag and, most importantly for geography-inept American viewers, its place on the world map were displayed at the bottom of the screen. Then, they'd cut to a close-up of the flag carrier and display his/her name and sport on the screen. Now that's the kind of information I was after. The Aussie commentators would blather on about the costumes when I wanted to know what a 350lb guy was doing carrying the Polish flag... (ah, weightlifting, of course).

Likewise, when I watched an early round women's basketball game (US vs Czech Republic), I noticed that the Australian commentators had left their briefs at home. "The American women had better watch out," they warned when the Czech team was up 6 points fifteen minutes in. I later learned that Lisa Leslie and the US team won the game by almost 30 points. It turns out that the US team begins with their B team, but the Aussies in the press box were completely oblivious to this.

Perhaps the most revealing moments of the Olympics were the commercial breaks. One of my favorites featured an Aussie swimmer proving the durability of a Lenovo laptop. It begins with her jumping out of a pool (remember this) and walking over to the sidelines to use her Lenovo laptop. Someone else drops it, but it's still okay and another clumsy person spills a glass of water all over the keyboard, but it's still okay. Wait, you're thinking, the fact that she just jumped out of a pool dripping wet wasn't enough to prove that this thing was water resistant and they had to use a glass of water? Yup. I couldn't get over it. 

Another less funny ad that I've seen outside of the Olympic coverage is one for the Commonwealth Bank. There are several in this series, but they all feature bank execs in a board room scenario. Two guys from an American advertising agency (labeled as such at the bottom of the screen) are pitching a dodgy marketing strategy to the Australian employees of the Commonwealth Bank. Of course, the ideas presented by the ad men come across as overly complicated and dishonest and the bankers save the day (and the innocent, straight shooting Australian public) by opting for a simple and reasonable idea. The underlying sentiment is clear: foreign (especially American) tactics are deliberately deceptive and inappropriate for Australian consumers. The same way American advertisements employ a British accent to make a product/service seem sophisticated, Australians use an American accent to signal something untrustworthy and foolish. This puts me as a person working in client services at a disadvantage. Does my accent speak louder than my words and reflect poorly on my company? 

On a more positive note, the theme of the other ads was Australian pride. One for Coles supermarkets glorifies the dutiful mum who accompanies her budding athlete child to early morning swim and rowing practice while claiming to be "proudly Australian since 1914." Another features different people watching in awe as some Aussie Olympian wins gold while enjoying McDonald's (it's so moving and patriotic that you'll forget that McDonald's is American). And another involves that same laptop girl carrying "the spirit of Australia" to Beijing in her suitcase. 

The national pride here is tremendous and it was fun to watch the news headlines change as the Olympics unfolded. Whereas we in America are isolated in that we don't really look beyond our borders, Australia is physically isolated and its people are highly conscious of their distance from the rest of the world. They respond by bonding together, training some of the strongest athletes and thus demanding that the rest of the world sit up and pay attention to this down under nation of 20 million. 

Here on my couch, I was cheering on Team USA and nearly cried when Phelps won his eighth gold medal, but there were plenty of times when Mickey and I shouted out, "Aussie, Ausssie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!" 


Leah H said...

I've never really thought about watching the Olympics from a different country's perspective (which goes to show how US rooted I am) but from your description it sounds like a lot of fun. Its kind of nice to bring things back to the original, world-unity viewpoint (or, at least, you have twice as many chances to be excited when you are cheering for two countries).

Anne said...

Good words.