Buy some tissue for Olympic viewing

It’s time for sports fans to pull up a TV and sit for a week or two, watching another episode of the Olympic Games unfold.

By now veteran sports fans have gotten used to the new-style Olympics, although we do miss the old days when it was good vs. evil, the U.S. vs. the Soviet Union, the Western Block vs. the Eastern Block, women with shorn underarms vs. those without. Who can forget the East Germans, who brought us steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs? Without the 1964 East German women’s swimming team, there never would have been a Barry Bonds.

In those days the medal count was what counted. At the end of each day of competition, if the USSR had 10 gold, 15 silver and 21 bronze, and the USA had 8 gold, 12 silver and 25 bronze, we all fired up our newfangled calculators to determine what, if any chance the USA had of catching up, knowing that Valeriy Brumel hadn’t even lifted a leg in the high jump competition yet. When and if the USA caught up, it was nationwide celebration time.

Now that it’s 2008, nobody cares about the medal count. Who’s the fleetest and strongest hardly matters. The Chinese have been churning out outstanding athletes like widgets formerly made in America, but they won’t get much TV time. Not unless they have a good sob story to go with that gold medal. If the Romanian bronze medal winner overcame living with a drunken mother and survived a serious car crash running away from her vampire father, she’ll get all the press coverage. Nobody will care about the Chinese winner who has been confined to an athletic compound since showing unusual dexterity while twisting in the womb. You have to have a good story to go with that medal.

In fact, in the modern Olympics you don’t even need to win a medal to gain Olympic fame. The great U.S. story going in is the 40-year-old female swimmer who made the team but doesn’t have a chance to win a medal. She was on TV the other night, tearing up as she told the story of her father dying before she got around to telling him about her Olympic dreams.

You’d think she could at least have sent a postcard.

Another big pre-Olympics story is the Iraqi Olympic team, which has no chance of winning anything unless they decide to allow the Iraqi national sport, called “Place Roadside Bomb and Run Like Crazy.” The drama is over whether the Iraqis will even be able to compete, all due to a bureaucratic mess. If they make it to Beijing, every stroke of their rowing team will be recorded on worldwide TV, even though a team that practices in the desert sand has never won a rowing competition.

Hurry to Costco and purchase a trunkful of tissue, because you’ll need it for the tear-jerking Olympics stories brought to us by NBC. We’ll learn about what makes the modern athlete great: The diseases fought, drug abuse overcome, childhood traumas, the agony of a facial blemish outbreak just as the cameras turn to your event, and, to lighten things up, the fashion statements being made by the men’s gymnastics team.

What we won’t get is much coverage of the competition. But we can’t complain, otherwise we’ll be labeled as an unrepentant cold warrior. Truth be told, we do kind of miss those days.

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