The conventional wisdom about the Olympics has always been that it turns its viewers into wannabe athletes. Every time the Games roll around, particularly the Summer Games with their relatively easy-to-try-at-home events like track and swimming , we start hearing about surges in running shoe purchases and gym memberships.
In a recent USA Today op-ed, First Lady Michelle Obama cited the Olympics as a motivator in the fight against obesity. "I can't wait to see Team USA in action and to cheer on our athletes," she wrote. "And I can't wait to see what all of us can do together to inspire a generation to lead healthier, more active lives."
So, sure, some viewers may be sitting on their food-encrusted couches hoping to become Usain Bolt or Missy Franklin. But the real spawn of the 2012 Games appears to be not an army of armchair athletes but, rather, armchair judges.
Within seconds of the start of the opening ceremony, spectators all over the world were tweeting, blogging or otherwise just shouting out their opinions to whomever would listen. Between 8 p.m. British time and the end of the delayed U.S. broadcast, the ceremony received 9.66 million mentions on Twitter. Many were blandly enthusiastic, but many more, it seemed, represented elite levels of griping and snark. A British politician took heat for characterizing the show as "multicultural crap." Another showed a photo of a stern-looking Queen Elizabeth II watching the parade of nations. Superimposed over the image were the words "Look at all the countries I used to own."
From there, the sneers and jeers piled up faster than Michael Phelps' medals, and not just on the Internet. In living rooms I know about, the perceived superfluousness of certain events elicited predictable jokes. "Trampoline: Really? What's next? Foosball? Synchronized yoga?" Shots from all over were fired at NBC's broadcast, which has been condemned for its tape delay, its laser focus on U.S. athletes, its schmaltz and Ryan Seacrest's journalistic deficits.
And then there's the bizarre sideshow that has emerged around Gabby Douglas' hair. The first black gymnast to win the individual all-around gold medal, Douglas has been excoriated — apparently by other black women — for crimes having to do with insufficient neatness or gorgeousness of coiffure. In turn, her attackers have been excoriated, and now nary an article is written about Douglas that doesn't touch on the "controversy."
For better or worse, it's human nature to take pleasure in scolding, carping and quibbling. The record-breaking numbers watching the London pageantry are no exception.
And of course the Olympics shouldn't be exempt from criticism. As any serious athlete will tell you, there's always room for improvement. But given the dedication of so many of the people involved — not just the athletes but the planners, the volunteers, the workers who had 60 hours to transform the Olympic stadium from a gargantuan theater into an athletic arena — there's something about the Games that also, it would seem, begs us to lay off for once.
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For all the product endorsements and glimpses of VIPs in the stands, the Olympics are ultimately a 17-day celebration of real people. That doesn't come around all that often — every two years, to be precise. And for a few weeks, chatter around the water cooler can focus on measurable accomplishments rather than empty celebrity.
Instead of gossiping about rehab-bound starlets, we can speculate on the fate of whatever runner or javelin thrower currently has us in his or her thrall. Before we return to eyeballing the usual lineup of artificially enhanced body parts on red carpets, we can take a moment to be reminded how nature defines "physical ideal" (at least until the drug tests roll in). In some ways, the Olympics are a vacation from the regularly scheduled culture, a healthy break from our usual junky ways.
And since we're on vacation, we might as well take a breather from the constant appraisals and just kick back and watch. As a yogi would say (synchronized or otherwise,) "Don't judge, just observe." And thanks to that tape delay, we can fast-forward through the commercials.