I think that most of you know that I have just about zero interest in watching sports. I understand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and all the rest, but whether we’re talking (American) football, soccer (football), cricket, badminton or anything else, I just don’t get excited about watching other people battle each other.
The other night though, I decided to dip my toes in the Olympic waters and I watched the coverage of the “women’s” (girls + 3 women) gymnastic team competition. And I realized I had made a terrible mistake by ignoring sports in Romania all these years.
In 2004 I was busy recovering my sanity after quitting my job with the government and preparing to move to Romania. In 2008 I was far too involved with the war in Tshkinvali to pay any attention to the Olympics. But way back in 1996, during that long, hot summer, I had my television glued to the Games, particularly the gymnastics team final.
In case you missed it, there was a tremendous battle between the United States and Romania for the gold medal. The American team, coached by the former Romanian coach Bela Karolyi, the man who “discovered” Nadia Comaneci, and featuring an ethnic Romanian gymnast named Dominique Moceanu, was fighting it out tooth and nail with the Romanian team, led by the indomitable Simona Amanar.
As it got down to the very last rotation on the very last apparatus, one of the gymnasts on the American team, Kerri Strug, severely injured her ankle. She was faced with an extremely difficult choice – withdraw from her last run and preserve her health at the cost of a team gold medal or else go ahead and run down the mat and perform one last Olympic level vault and do it well enough to defeat the Romanians in front of 80,000 screaming fans in Atlanta, Georgia.
Her coach’s words before that last unforgettable vault shall never be forgotten: You can do it. And indeed she did. America won the team gold and Bela Karolyi had to carry her onto the podium.
During this entire competition, I had my VCR recording everything. Years later I was going through a pile of old unmarked video casettes and happened to find my recording of the 1996 gymnastics final. There is a strange Olympic rule that when a gymnastic is on an apparatus, the coach is not allowed to say anything but the teammates can shout anything they like. You have no idea what a strange and happy surprise it was for me to watch that old tape and realize I could understand what the Romanians were saying. In 1996, it was as foreign and unintelligible as ancient Greek. All those years later, the words made sense.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I watched the 2012 gymnastics final. My hat is off in congratulations for all the hard work and excellent performance of all the gymnasts involved, including the American team (winning gold for the first time since 1996) as well as the Romanian team. But unfortunately there was something very ugly going on that had nothing to do with the athletes competing in London.
In the United States, the television channel NBC pays millions of dollars to set up their own television cameras and provide coverage (it was NBC that I had taped back in 1996). The rest of the world however is limited to a feed that comes out of the media centre in London. Which gymnast is competing, which angle of a shot to use, when to show a slow-motion replay, all of that is decided by someone in London. The only thing that TVR (Romanian channel) and the other hundreds of broadcasters around the world get to contribute is the person doing the color commentary (announcer) about what’s going on.
Here in Romania I have three separate choices on the commentary – TVR (Romanian), M2 (Hungarian) and Eurosport (British English). Again, remember that the feed itself, the images we are all watching, is identical. Only the person or persons talking and commenting about what’s going on is different. I don’t speak Hungarian so I skipped that after I determined it was using the same video feed as the other channels.
Originally I was watching the Romanian feed because I was curious. I figured that a nation like Romania with such a long history of high-level gymnastics would have some really expert commentary that would provide me with deeper insights into the sport. I’ve already admitted I know next to nothing about sports and I was looking forward to perhaps an ex-gymnast or former gymnastic coach talk about strategy, points and all the rest.
Unfortunately what I got was a xenophobic rant that was borderline racist. It was a single woman talking to herself (I never caught the name) on the Romanian channel. She was talking non-stop and was approaching a hyperventilating frenzy. I expected enthusiasm for when Romanian gymnasts were shown competing on the feed but this woman completely ignored gymnasts from any other country and instead endlessly talked about what the Romanians were doing off camera.
Due to the way gymnastic meets are held, different gymnasts are performing routines simultaneously on different apparatuses. Sometimes this crazy Romanian lady would go into great detail explaining what a Romanian gymnast was doing off camera and then a minute later the feed would show the entire routine. In essence, she had just “spoiled it” for all of us simply because she couldn’t let go of her obsessive need to only discuss what Romanians were doing.
Furthermore, this crazy lady kept talking at the camera as if the Romanian gymnasts could hear her, saying things like, “You can do it!” and “We’re behind you!”. She also never once referred to the team in an objective way but was always “we” and “us” and “our”. It was never “the next rotation for the Romanian team” but “our next rotation” and so on and so forth. It was creepy and possessive and so I turned on my Twitter and Facebook feed to see more of the same – out of every Romanian’s mouth it’s always “us”, “we” and “our” as though there are 18 million athletes competing in London on the Romanian team instead of a few dozen.
The Eurosport commentary however, was far better. There were two men talking (again, I failed to catch the names), one of whom is a gymnastic coach so spent lots of time talking about moves, points and scoring so that even a complete idiot like myself could understand. The British team (or “Team GB” as they like to call it) was in the finals for the first time in years, a happy honor for them. And yet at no time did these guys become crazy obsessive and refer to “us” and “we” even though they were sitting in their own capital city in an Olympics being hosted in their own country while their own national team was performing.
Did they cheer when a British gymnast did well? Of course. I certainly understand that patriotism is on the line for a lot of people watching the Olympics. But these two British commentators managed to take a deep breath once in a while and let we, the spectators at home, enjoy the artistry and beauty of these top athletes instead of yammering non-stop and telling us what was going on.
Just in case I caught TVR on a bad day, I tuned into the Romanian coverage for a short while yesterday. Sadly, even in other events with other commentators, nothing is different. The Romanians don’t give a good goddamn about the performance of other athletes even if they are superb and breathtaking and amazingly graceful. They don’t care about the struggles and sacrifices of other athletes, not those from richer countries and not those from far poorer countries, just to be able to compete in this top level competition.
Promoting understanding and goodwill amongst nations is of zero value to the Romanian commentators. All anyone gives a damn about is if someone with a red, yellow and blue flag on their jacket is competing and the rest of the world can go fuck off.
It’s sad, really. Long gone are the Communist days when competing in international sports matches was a proxy for the cold war. Long gone are the days when the state would invest enormous sums into their sports programs so that they could win some kind of prestige or respect on the world stage. Long gone are the days when tiny little children would be sequestered away from their families for years and years, subject to nothing but non-stop training so that they could win a few medals.
But the mentality is still there, with all this “we” and “our” and “us”. The bizarre idea of the government paying athletes for medals (25,000 euros for a bronze and more for the others) still exists though, sadly enough. I admire the courage and the dedication of the Romanian athlete who won a silver in weightlifting. But does being able to lift a heavy bar over your head for 2 seconds really deserve more money than the yearly salary of two teachers?
Just a few weeks ago, Romanians won several medals at academic Olympic meets, including one for mathematics and one for chemistry. Do these medals get rewarded with cash from the government? Of course not. Being a math genius means nothing but being able to run fast or lift heavy weights off the ground does. That’s a fucked up priority and one that needs to be left in the Communist past.
Sadly for the Romanian gymnastic program, I have a strong feeling that this will be their last team medal for a long time. While there are always new athletes coming up in the ranks, the experienced coaches are all being lured away to other countries because they can actually make a decent living in other countries. I noted that half the countries in the finals this year had Romanian coaches on their teams.
Maybe a little austerity in the medals department in future games might temper some of this rabid patriotism and help introduce the concept that being part of the world community is actually a good thing and that it’s ok to cheer for the best athlete, regardless of what flag is on their back.
At least that’s my hope.