Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I hope to never NBC you again

My dad sent me a text message the other day, a feat in itself for my technologically-challenged parents, that simply read: "I've Stopped Watching The Olympics. NBC Has 2 Many Commercials!"

I wrote him one back: "I live only three hours away by car and can't watch it live on TV."

I love the Winter Olympics. They are the caviar of Olympiads in comparison to the Red Lobster Summer Games. The fascinating events are all life-threateningly dangerous, the number of countries is smaller and the whole event is far more intimate. Ancient Scandinavian bloodlines battle it out while playing sports their ancestors created. Norway. Finland. Sweden. You've got Germans methodically powering up the medal count ladder while America's running out of hands to hold all its medals. There are old, tenacious fueds ... Russia vs. Czech Republic in hockey. USA vs. Canada in hockey. Austria in the ski jump. Norway's Red Army in cross country skiing. It's the BEST. Nothing compares to the Winter Olympics other than the World Cup. Nothing.

And yet NBC, who paid nearly a billion dollars in television rights to host these 2010 Vancouver games, are destroying every little ounce of childish joy that I have, that we all have, about the Winter Games because they don't understand their audience.

That's going to be a surprise to a lot of Conan O'Brien fans.

We're being held hostage by a network who wants to tape-delay the games in order to get potential viewers in prime advertising timeslots to watch 25,000 ads for "Parenthood" and "The Marriage Ref." I get it, you've had terrible ratings, your formulaic sitcoms and post-party reality shows weren't helping. You guys are struggling and you thought, "This is a perfect chance to roll out the best we've got and get back all those viewers who somehow ditched 'Pam & Jim + An Office' for 'The Big Bang Theory.'"

Sorry, "The Big Bang Theory" rocks.

The point is that it's the Olympics! Being the flagship station means more than just winning an advertising lottery, it means you are the eyes and ears of our nation, you represent us ... It's not a time to shove your self-promotions deep down our warbling throats in the middle of a "Dammit NBC, just go back to the f-" howl.

Stop disrespecting us.

I want to watch the Olympics. I want to stay up late, wake up early, take a long lunch if I have to if it means the Cross Country team sprint final is going to be on. Give ME the chance to decide my experience, don't make it for me. I want to make my own Olympics experience. And that's where NBC has gone horribly wrong this winter.

These games are about the world's greatest athletes throttling our brains with spectacular feats of human determination on mashed-potato snow and poorly-groomed ice. What NBC has done is made this about one thing: America.

Okay two things ... America and Bob Costas.

I am a proud American. I want to watch our country's athletes succeed. I want to see them win medals, any medals, and put on performances that will make them and the entire country burst with patriotism. I want to see them win. I don't, however, NEED to see them lose. That's the distinction NBC hasn't figured out yet. They'd rather show tape-delayed footage of an American finishing 35th in an event than show someone from Belarus win gold. There's a big difference between covering the EVENT of the Olympics, and covering a purely one-dimensional subset of the Olympics: America. I am proud of my Norwegian heritage that traces back to one of Norway's kings, Haakon V, and I would like to watch the Norwegians win medals just as much. I'm proud of the Swiss ski jumpers, I want to see them win. I'm proud of the German lugers, I want to see them win. I'm proud of the bobsledders and biathletes and curlers! I want to see them win, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of their Lifetime story, I want to see the best athletes in the world compete and win.

See my point?

The focus should be on the EVENT, not the individual subset of America. Show me the world, NBC, show me the cultures, the languages, the passion, the drive, the adversity of the world. There have been more in-house interviews of NBC anchors interviewing OTHER NBC ANCHORS than there have been of any of the foreign medal winners. Bob Costas had a 20-minute piece of him riding in a float plane. A float plane! Are you serious?! Holy crap, Bob! That's some riveting TV! I'd never seen a float plane before!

Al Michaels seemed to enjoy that piece, laughing deeply next to a bustling fire, prepping questions for a delightful Cris Collinsworth interview.

Or what about the fluff segment on Mary Carillo (man voice, man haircut, woman body ... you figure that one out) training with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Why do I need to see a small, manly woman dressed in Canadian army fatigues running and sweating trying to prove that she could be a Mountie? Why not just show ... I dunno ... THE OLYMPICS?!

My dad's rightful intolerance with the ridiculously-long commercial breaks aside, there's basic programming that seems to have eluded the great minds at NBC. How about, when you come back from a commercial break, instead of cutting to some other sport, you pick right back up where you left off. Yeah? Does that work for you guys? I had ominous feelings during the opening ceremonies when they'd cut to a commercial break, come back from the break, and quickly "recap" which countries had walked in while we had watched another two minutes of network previews.

"And we're back! ... Oops, looks like we missed the host-nation Canada, sorry 'bout that guys ... But look ... there ... we put up a picture of them walking in ... it's from last Olympics, but ... I mean, it's mostly the same."

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

It's not even the cutting either, there's so much more. The editing of the tape-delayed events destroys all context and actually becomes some bizarre auteur-piece done by a producer hopped up on 5-hour Energy, showing how dramatically the American went last, against all odds, and won the gold. Uh, yeah ... the American didn't go last, I was tracking the results on my phone earlier today.

And if I somehow muster the resolve to watch the games on tape delay, I have to endure tortuous conditions trying to keep from seeing the damn scores ahead of time. Just pathetic. Don't open ESPN. Don't watch the local news. Don't listen to the radio. Don't, don't, don't. Hide in a dungeon, turn off your phone, rip the internet cable out of the wall with your teeth. Glue your eyelids shut and stuff angry hissing cockroaches in your ears. Just avoid the world. That's how you can be surprised by NBC's tape-delayed coverage ... avoid the world.

That's one helluva marketing scheme there, guys. Maybe I'll just avoid your network after the games. Now, wouldn't that be ironic?

What's equally ironic is the criticism NBC and Costas have had throughout the games, starting with some minor technical errors during the opening ceremonies, to the way the luge track is built, to the type of snow falling in Vancouver. They've been absurdly (annoyingly) critical of every nook and cranny of the execution of the Olympics, mostly because they're having to fill time for the tape-delay re-runs, that it's hard to even pay attention to the events themselves with Costas trying to constantly remind us how shitty everything is.

Open your eyes, Bob, open your network's eyes too. The snow didn't come this year, the athletes got over it. The luge track was fine and shortened to calm everything down after the tragedy of opening day. Everybody moved forward. You and your network, ironically, have nothing to blame but greed and arrogance for the pathetic presentation of the Winter Olympics you've force-fed us for two weeks now. Your heads are in the sand though, you point the finger at everyone else, seeking places to criticize for no reason at all. Just because you're bored. Or bad broadcasters. Gotta be one.

The people of Vancouver should be celebrated for their hard work to get the tracks and courses ready to go despite the incredible lack of snow. The security has been fantastic at the games, the city has been a brilliant host, and the people of Canada have really shown the world their lives, their culture, and their spirit.

The only mistake that's happened at this games is NBC's broadcast.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The tragedy of Togo

The African Nations Cup, a continent-wide football tournament that sweeps through the football community every two years, is supposed to be one of the true revelations in the sport.

Forty years ago, African football was a joke, the players didn't understand the rules, they were routinely lambasted and turned into smoldering piles of disgrace by the world-renowned European and South American clubs. They weren't a part of the discussion. They weren't even on the radar.

But now, African football is alive. African football gives more than just laughter to the world now, although Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue occasionally finds time, they give quality, speed, power, ferocity, and some of the finest footballers the world has seen. The African national teams are stacked now -- Michael Essien, Samuel Eto'o, Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba -- with world-renowned players who start for Champions League winners, Premier League winners, La Liga winners, and scatter throughout the line-ups of some of the biggest and most-successful clubs in football.

But in 2010, African football returned to the depths of the footballing world. The African Cup of Nations, a tournament so bright and vibrant, filled with splashes of yellow, red, and green, fans of all age, from all corners of the world, dazzling in brilliant costume and unwavering passion, who come together to celebrate their African heritage and their contributions to the beautiful game, was disgraced by the committee designed to run it: The Confederation of African Football (CAF).

The Togolese football team, the Sparrow Hawks in their shining yellow jerseys, was attacked, cut down riding buses to their very first game, by a group of masked men. It was right out of a movie, something so unbelievable that the players themselves could hardly find the words to describe the horror. Bullets pounded the buses for nearly 20 minutes as an armed security team, designed to protect the Togolese players, fired back. The players hid under the seats, those that weren't shot at least, and prayed for safety, thinking all they'd get in return was a premature death. They were targeted, for their money, for their fame, for the fear and terror that killing them could bring. Their bus driver was killed instantly. Another team official died. Many were wounded, including Serge Akakpo, a defender who plays his club football in Romania, who was shot twice and bled so much his teammates were sure he would die in their arms as they wept for help.

So when the Togo football team decided to pull out of the African Cup of Nations, people understood. You had to understand. The situation ... the fear, the heartbreak, the death ... was so much heavier than football. The tournament must go on, as they say, but the Togolese players needed time to process the destruction, to see their families, and to mourn the loss of two of their brothers.

Even more important, they didn't want to be attacked again; murdered in cold blood over a football match. With support from their prime minister, Gilbert Huongbo, they came home to Togo to find some semblance of peace and comfort outside of the terror they never should've been a part of anyway.

The CAF, however, disagreed.

In what has to be the most shocking decision in the history of football, the CAF decided to ban Togo from the next two ACONs after the team withdrew from the tournament.

I'll repeat that:

CAF is BANNING the Togolese football team from playing in the next two African Cup of Nations for withdrawing from the 2010 ACON after being attacked and watching their bus driver and teammates shot up like dogs.

Togo have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn the decision on Feb. 12. And if the CAS and FIFA have any pulse left to feel what humanity feels, not only will they reinstate Togo for all future ACONs, but will severely punish CAF for their political, selfish, and pathetic handling of the situation. CAF thought there was government influence that led to Togo's decision to withdraw, which led to their decision to ban the team for the next four years of competition. But so what? The Togolese government has every right to step in and protect its people, especially in such a brutally-public arena just 117 days before the World Cup hits South Africa. CAF has no right, they shouldn't even have sniffed around this one, to intervene in such a traumatizing situation.

When Lance Armstrong came back after beating cancer, was he banned from the Tour de France for having to withdraw from prior competitions to receive chemotherapy?

When a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games, was Israel banned from the next Olympic games?

Or what about the Georgian luger, rest in peace, who died on Feb. 12, 2010 after a training accident the day the Winter Olympics were set to begin in Vancouver. If Georgia decided to withdraw all other Georgian athletes from the tournament out of respect for their fallen teammate, would the IOC turn around and ban Georgia from the next Olympic games?

It's utter, utter madness.

General Seyi Memene, a vice-president inside CAF, said, "First of all, I am Togolese, so I pray to god that this sanction is lifted."

The disarray inside the Confederation of African Football is damning the people who deserve it the least.

Aside from the blatant answer of reinstatement, what can the CAF do to rectify the situation?

Give Togo the next African Cup of Nations. Make them the host country. Celebrate the people, celebrate the two men who lost their lives to blind ignorance and greed, celebrate the team. But most of all, celebrate Africa for all the good it has brought the rest of the world, both in football and in life. The resilience of the Togolese players, who discussed the ambush bravely to the media, who still vowed to play even though their hearts were pulling them back home, who came back to their clubs, exhausted, relieved, mournful, and jumped right back into their seasons, shows the passion and determination these players, these men, show on and off the field. It is a reflection of their people, a reflection of the pride they have for their countrymen, and it should be celebrated.

The Togolese people deserve it.

The Togolese players deserve it.

And most of all, African football deserves it.

Thank you, Greg Oden

Just thinking how lucky I was to have written about Greg Oden before he exposed his genitals to the Internet.

My photo hunt could've turned up something much, much different.