Within days now, the gnawed remains of two splendid human rituals will be hauled before us on television, to be presented as if still possessed of life and meaning. Alas, both are as dead as gaslight or the blacksmith shop. I mean, of course, the American political conventions, as a celebration of the political vitality of a free republic, and the Olympic Games, as a symbol of the purity of competitive international sports. Both are deep into irreversible decay. Both should be granted the honor of a swift, peaceful death and a decent burial.
That won’t happen this year, because the immense lumbering machinery of television is already at the sites of the conventions and the Summer Games. The Republican and Democratic conventions will be covered as a twin bill, played in separate cities (Philadelphia and Los Angeles). The Olympics are scattered around Sydney, Australia. The sleek booths have been built for the announcers and commentators. The hotel rooms are booked. The credentials are ready. The advertising has been sold. This year, there is no going back.
And so we will go forward into full decadence. From the conventions and from Sydney, we will be presented with endless canned videos full of sentimental slush. There will be brief biographies of George W. Bush and Al Gore, on horseback in the great outdoors (ah, those wonderful mornings in America!), or meeting, in alternate cuts, with world leaders or real folks, or presented as normal American children in real families, or hugging their real nice brides and very nice children. These canned political features will be true to the genre presented by NBC during the 1996 Olympics. The human touch, baby. And lots of slo-mo, to make the banal seem poetic. All will be italicized with gushing strings where appropriate, or down-home banjo-picking when the solemn announcer speaks of “roots.” Each will be as spontaneous as an income-tax return.
After the usual rehearsals, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush will read speeches hacked out of stale political butter by the rented fingers of professional speechwriters. Cut to a weeping delegate from Alabama. Cut to a cheering delegate from Wisconsin, in a hat shaped like a cheese. Then cut to the booth, where otherwise intelligent people will try to give meaning to each packaged event. What’s your take, Jeff? Well, Ted, uh, Bernie.… Someone will use the words “finest hour” or “downside” or “reality check.” Cut to the spinmeisters for a dose of paid optimism. Then cut outside the arena, to the protesters. Hey, they have scripts, too. Someone will use the phrase “sad day for America.” Cut to the candidate. Cut to the bar.
Through all of this, the media will try to impose a sense of drama where none exists. How will the party platform play? What will John McCain say? How will Bill Bradley’s delegates react? And the Vice Presidency: Someone will remind us that Mr. Bush is the son of a Vice President and Mr. Gore actually is a Vice President and someone else will quote John Garner to the effect that the job ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
None of this predictable August blather will be erased by the September events in Sydney. Poor Bob Costas, one of the most intelligent of sports announcers, will have to introduce features that could make the Bush-Gore productions look like Citizen Kane . Virtually every athlete will overcome some form of adversity to get to the Olympics: a poverty-stricken childhood, a dying mother, a bout with crack cocaine, semi-literacy, an ingrown toenail. Dissolve to athlete running at dawn, mountains in background, music emphasizing loneliness of long-distance runner. Cut to childhood snapshots or family videos. Cut to high-school coach. Cut to triumphant burst across finish line at Olympic trials. Cut to weeping athlete. Cut to commercial.
There will be very little about the scandals that have plagued the Olympics for years now: drugs, corruption, payoffs and bribes by local politicians to “get” the Olympics. If there’s a profile of Olympic boss Juan Samaranch, it’s unlikely to include much about his loyal service to dictator Francisco Franco in Spain. We won’t get a breakdown of the immense revenues raked in by the International Olympic Committee (cut to Swiss bank). We won’t get the impression that “I.O.C.” might stand for “International Organized Crime.”
Instead, NBC almost certainly will give us another exercise in American parochialism. In 1996, I watched the games on television in Mexico City, flipping from NBC to the two Mexican channels that were sharing the coverage. NBC’s policy was simple: America first, even when we finished fourth. On Mexican television, there were actually events that did not include Mexicans (or Americans, for that matter). Along with the Mexican audience, I got to see actual sports competitions among superb athletes, and saw them from beginning to end. The poor American television watchers, held in such brainless contempt by the NBC brass, essentially saw highlight films and canned features. About people waving American flags.
In the end, of course, parochialism is not enough reason to bring the Olympics to an end. The real argument should be made against the debasing of that “Olympic ideal” that the Samaranch cuadrilla still evokes to cover its money-grubbing operations. The Olympics are no longer an assembly of amateur athletes who, in the strict sense of the word “amateur,” do what they do for love. This is now a Pro-Am tournament, packed with professional athletes who perform in order to make more money when the games are over.
This all goes back to the Cold War, of course, when the communists were fielding their own professionals and winning too many medals against true American amateurs. But the Cold War is over, and the dominant emotion of the games is now a mixture of greed and cold-eyed professionalism. The Russians have already announced $100,000 bonuses for every winner of a gold medal. And for every athlete on the field in Sydney, there will surely be at least one agent in the stands. Like the politicians in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where campaign funds are the equivalent of steroids, the goal of the televised events is to cash in later.
The Democrats and Republicans will continue their quadrennial assemblies because they don’t have any reason not to. They can make deals in the bars and hospitality suites. They can hand-deliver their résumés. But it is unlikely that anything will happen at the conventions that could not be ratified by e-mail.
The Olympic Games are another matter. If the I.O.C. is unwilling to return to the old “ideal” by once more banning professionals, then the games should come to an end. The broadcasters and sponsors could then liberate themselves from the moral squalor of the Olympic Games by organizing a competition of true amateurs, without the sanction of the I.O.C. The professionals and their agents could then regroup, cobble together an all-pro Money Games and, for a share of the jackpot, compete with anyone in the house.
Meanwhile, the media of the world could save a lot of money and use it to hire reporters. There’s a vast world out there, filled with stories, none of which play to soundtracks lush with strings.