Shawn Johnson by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The other night, NBC ran a cute piece toward the end of its prime-time broadcast- which means it probably aired somewhere around midnight- about how people are battling sleep deprivation thanks to how late we're all staying up to watch the Olympics each night. Somehow I was awake to watch it- although someone in the office told me they saw the piece repurposed at another time, so who knows when I saw it; it's all a blur.
The point being that when big Olympics events are live, as they were the first week of the games with Michael Phelps' awesome miniseries-like laps of swimming history and the team gymnastics competitions, there's an undeniable thrill watching them unfold in real time, no matter how late it goes. (I groaned one night last week upon realizing the women's gymnastics weren't starting until 11:10 pm/ET, but I stayed glued until well past 1 in the morning. No regrets.)
But this week it's a different story, and it boils down to a single, simple word: Greed. I don't remember as a kid being forced to stay up until midnight to watch Olga Korbut become an international sensation at 1972's Munich games, or Nadia Comaneci four years later in Montreal. But any youngsters hoping to be inspired by the grace and sportsmanship of Shawn Johnson (who finally earned her Gold on the balance beam) and all-around Gold medalist Nastia Liukin had to stay up well past their natural bedtime Tuesday night to watch these memorable final rounds of individual competition, which had transpired many hours earlier (unlike the gymnastics events of the first week).
You'd have to be an idiot not to understand why NBC does this- which still doesn't excuse it. The Olympics is first and foremost show business, with an emphasis on business, and NBC will do whatever's in its best interests to maximize its $894 million investment in securing the rights to these games. That means extending its prime-time coverage until at least midnight (and usually running over a bit) each weeknight, and in classic show-biz fashion that means saving the best for last.
Not that there wasn't plenty of drama in the hours leading up to Tuesday night's balance beam showdown- and the men's high bar competition that came even later, with Jonathan Horton's jubilant silver-medal performance. As always at the Olympics, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (to borrow ABC's old
Wide World of Sports
slogan) are separated by a razor-thin margin, and that was rarely more evident than in Tuesday's more memorable track-and-field highlights, replayed during regular prime-time hours. Sanya Richards looked like a winner in the opening leg of the 400-meter run, but seized up (with an apparent cramp) at the end and barely managed a bronze. A heartbreaker. Even more shocking was the 100-meter hurdles that followed, with favorite Lolo Jones nicking the next-to-last hurdle and falling out of medal contention, opening the door for novice teammate Dawn Harper to win. Jones was devastated, but held it together long enough to give a graceful interview. Harper's reaction, disbelief blossoming into jubilation, was pure Olympics gold. As Bob Costas said, summing up the night in track, "The rallying cry 'Wait till next year' doesn't apply to the Olympics."
Costas remains the smoothest of Olympics hosts, but maybe if he'd indulge one less cutesy travel piece from Mary Carillo, or spare us Cris Collinsworth's cloying banter, we could get to a marquee event like the women's balance beam before 11 pm/ET.
It was the worth the wait, though, even for those of us who hadn't managed to keep the results a secret. (Hours earlier, I'd inadvertently called up a story online about Shawn Johnson's win, but I was still plenty eager to see it.) To watch this spitfire chipmunk finally score the gold, with the elegant superstar Nastia Liukin as her #2, was sweet payback from the night before, when Liukin (in my eyes) was robbed of a gold when a tie vote went against her, favoring her curiously petite Chinese competitor. (The gymnastics rules and scoring are clearly for the birds.)
As we go into these final nights of the Olympics, which I know I'm going to miss terribly, it's worth reminding ourselves that being a fan is not unlike running a marathon. You have to pace yourself (which is why I got some early shuteye Tuesday during a few of the quarterfinal track heats). But really, NBC, would it have killed you to give us a break and show some of these marquee events before the witching hour?
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