Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I Was An Olympic Orphan

I'm an Olympic Orphan. Stranded with no place to call my home I wandered through darkness seeking the light of the olympic flame in the houses of my friends and acquaintances. You see, most of you reading this don't understand what it's like to live without television. You think that cable-perfect reception is one of those things like electricity and natural gas: a utility. I've made a life-choice to not have cable and hence have orphaned myself from the rest of the viewing population. I'm far from asking you to feel sorry for me. I look at it as a benefit!

At last count, 184 million total, unduplicated viewers, two-thirds of all Americans, watched the Olympics on the networks of NBC Universal last month. I tried to join them after deciding I would adopt various families with whom I would watch (or more ot the point, they were asked to adopt me!). It seemed like the ultimate plan: bring wine, food, or a smile over to various houses and enjoy the world's greatest athletes in action. I did, however, encounter a few unexpected life lessons along the way. Most of them were things that were unforeseen, experiences I learned from. Others were simply ignorance. All were worth experiencing.


First off, my original choice of venues had a major flaw. You see, I planned to watch with a combination of friends (good ol' friends, gotta love 'em) and girlfriends (ok, so you really shouldn't have more than one and maybe that was my issue right there but throw me a bone here). Girlfriends are not to be counted on for two things:
  1. Allowing you to watch a sporting event at their house on-demand
  2. Being your girlfriend at the very time you intend to do so (Murphy's Law)
So I kept my options restricted to three houses of friends who regularly watched the Olympics. They were extraordinarily accomodating and understanding of my plight. But I couldn't invade them every night so I was left with the basic premise that I could watch every 3rd night of the games rather than having the viewing as a nightly event.

Another thing I realized I could not control but which had great impact on the sports: it's not the size of the TV, it's the content available on it. I found that at the houses with TiVo we could watch nearly 3-days worth of content in a single 4-hr evening session. The commercial content during the games was so long that I felt I could have written a short novel during all the breaks at the non-Tivo houses.

On the flip side, I found that having the commericals is what makes the Olympics a crowd-friendly event. It gave us time to talk about life, ethics, Olympic non-sense and family. Is Tivo ruining the concept of the 'group watch-party'? That's not for me to answer here, but food for thought.


The most interesting thing I learned along my journey was that the sports I thought I'd most like to see were both difficult to catch during prime-time and also turned out to be mundane compared to the less popular sports I did get to watch.

Personally I could do without ice dancing, figure skating and the like. However I thought that all the skiing events would be thrilling. I also thought I liked to watch bobsledding. I was wrong on both counts. Turns out that 2-man bobsled is the equivalent of watching a slow yellow schoolbus go down an icy street in Maryland during February. The more interesting sports of luge and the new sport of skeleton were absolutely thrilling, however, and use the same track. I also found that the sports I thought would be mundane were absolutely mesmerizing. This includes long distance ski jumping and cross-country racing. These sports take a while to get through, the athletes are all Norweigian (the US doesn't even have entrants in some of the jumping), and generally you can't tell the difference between half the entrants. But the final moments are what Olympic spirit is all about.

I never really thought much about the athletic prowess needed for a cross-country ski race, I now see it as the marathon of the winter games. It's long, grueling, and mentally and physically taxing. Bravo for those athletes. On the flip-side, ski jumpers tend to have these ridiculous spandex-looking wetsuit-like outfits with 6" of extra crotch-length that gives them more lift. With the giant skis it really makes them the virtual circus clows of the winter games. Giant suit, big floppy shoes... you get the idea.

But irregardless of the outfit-factor, these sports were so much better than what any major network had previously chosen for prime-time. I was quite pleased by my surprise.


This is definitely one I did NOT count on. But the truth is that the winter games on the west-coast were taped delayed. They did not begin until 8pm PST. That's late! When you're talking about 4-hrs of content every night with over an hour of commericals it's exhausting.
  • By the end of the 2-week period my eyes were tired (see the first paragraph above: I'm was not used to watching TV so I hadn't had proper 'training' for this marathon).
  • By the end of the 2-week period my brain was tired from tracking all the athletes -- some of them were in 4 or 5 events, there was drama and politics. Essentially, for 2-weeks every 2 years the Olympics become a world unto themselves. They use the word "village" to describe their living area because it IS one. They have literally created a small community and it's broadcast to a billion folks, worldwide.
  • By the end of the 2-week period my body was tired. First off, eating out every night or every few nights is hard on the digestive system. Combine that with beer and wine (it's a social event, after all!) and some good dessert every other night... well, you get the picture. Now add about 1-2 hours less sleep on those odd nights and you get some quality exhaustion.

A Two-peat?

So the quesiton now becomes: was it worth it and would I do this again? The answer is a definitive yes. For a single individual or even a happy couple, the Olympic Orphan concept is an absolutely wonderful excuse for some quality socializing with friends who you may not have really 'hung out' with. Here's some wisdom I can now impart to the world as a whole:
  • Go in with low expectations. This isn't a formal dinner party; you might see your friends kids in their PJ's (hell, if you're really casual you'll probably see your friends in their PJ's too). The orphan experience is about experiencing a life outside of your own in real action. You might hear spouses argue, you might see cat puke on the rug. You are the observer of both the games and the lives around you. Enjoy.
  • Bring dinner, dessert, wine, or just yourself -- be adaptable. It's really about how you feel. Sometimes I thought the evening would be drunken debauchery and ended up in a casual chat hogging down girlscout cookies or laughing at the crotch-length of the ski jumpers. The reality is, most of us don't socialize over other people's houses, mid-week, for hours upon end. We're so 'in the box' that we only see certain people on the weekends or when their kids are away or with a babysitter. The Olympic Orphan concept is all about breaking those barriers.
  • Watch the sports you've never thought about. This one is extremely important. As mentioned, some of the most entertaining moments for all of us (not just me) during those two weeks were when a new sport came on, an old sport nobody had ever followed came on, or some we thought would be boring ended up bringing the very Olympic spirit we'd been seeking right into the living room.
Mostly, be courteous, be open, be safe and be appreciative that no matter how you might feel during those two weeks every two years there are billions of other folks out there smiling, laughing and getting into the Olympic spirit. Sport of the people? Maybe not. Opportunity for building quality social karma? Absolutely.

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