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THE BALTIMORE SUN

EVEN AS RECORDS fall and medals accumulate, opinion makers tell us the Olympics are in trouble. Television ratings are down, so that proves it.

Every four years it is more of the same, and we are a society that thrives on newness and the most visual images possible per square second. The Olympics need to be made zippier if they are going to survive.

The trademark Olympic sports - running, throwing and jumping - are so basically boring that newspapers forget about them for years, only rediscovering them in the weeks before the games begin. Television, with its great power to let us know what we as a society approve of, treats them even worse.

When television does stoop to show a track meet, it tries to compensate by showing as little of it as possible. No running event involving more than four laps of the track can be shown in its entirety. If something important happens in the race while the viewer is being amused elsewhere, the commentators pretend it didn't happen and don't mention it. Or maybe they are not pretending and never noticed it themselves.

The only way other events can be endured is to concentrate on personalities and dwell on rivalries, real or imagined. The drama on the track, a tight race between unknowns, is just too unpredictable and too lacking in those attention-getting elements learned in Basic TV 101.

Thus new ways must be found to keep the Olympics alive, to keep the television cameras buzzing, to keep the people tuning in to wade through hours of sports they aren't interested in to finally see a few minutes of those they are.

The basic running game can stand some variation. For years all we have had are running and running over things, such as hurdles and water (or through them, if the athletes are having a bad day).

Cross-fertilization provides an answer. The Summer Olympics can take a page from the Winter Games and add a new running event: The 300-meter slalom. Runners would have to run a zigzag course, tacking and twisting right and left to zip past a series of flagged posts set up at regular intervals. As with ski slaloming, failure to make a gate means automatic disqualification. The best time wins, with style points for being yare.

Another possibility is to combine sports - such as pole vaulting and gymnastics. Instead of jumping over a bar, the contestant would use a pole to jump onto one high above the ground and proceed to do a series of balance-beam exercises. Dismounting could display high-diving skills, with more points for pike position than for tuck. Judging is based on the height of the beam plus the grace and difficulty of the exercises.

One of the most talked-about recent sports is synchronized swimming. TV loves it, and that is what counts. But the visual effect is ruined by the participants having to wear pinchy nose plugs and by the water splashes obscuring the Doublemint picture.

A new sport would be a dry-land version, featuring some of the games' most facially expressive athletes, synchronized weight lifters. Side by side, each member of the two-man team would lift the same poundage, with synchronized jerks and identical expressions of strain on their faces. Freeze-frame technology would come into its own so viewers can judge the synchronization success for themselves.

Finally, there should be a sure-fire television attraction, one that gives the camera a chance to show its stuff, provides instant tension and multiple opportunities for the all-important close-ups.

And that is a sport already in existence but one inexplicably denied its rightful place on the Olympic scene: miniature golf. The joys of putting, the look on contestants' faces as they try to figure out impossible shots, the cute and clever variety of obstacles - maybe subtly decorated with tiny logos of athletic-wear companies or official Olympic sponsors - all this is television fodder.

The Olympics can be saved. All it takes is a little ingenuity.

Myron Beckenstein is an editor on The Sun's foreign desk.

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