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TELEVISION & RADIO | TELEVISION REVIEW

With a crash of symbols

The Olympics start out slick as NBC coverage lays it on thick.

August 16, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Welcome to Greece. Home of Eros, the God of Love; Zeus, the God of the Heavens; Visa, the God of Debt; and Nike, the God of Shoes We Want.

Is there ever a good time for an Olympics? I didn't want these Games. A big delegation of Americans going overseas to dominate and assert their superiority and might -- does the world need more of this symbolism right now?

But these Olympics were returning to their birthplace, 2,780 years later. "Tonight in Athens, Greece, the Olympics come home," the voice-over narrator began things on NBC on Friday night.

It was James Earl Jones' voice, so you believed it more.

Where I was, history was being made too: These were the first Olympic Games that I TiVo-ed. The awesome sprawl of the ages is one thing, but who has 2,780 years?

I probably won't soon delete the opening ceremony, even if I do need to create some memory space for that season pass to "The O.C." Give it to the Greeks, they know how to throw a floor show. A javelin-throwing centaur, a moonwalking Eros, Bjork in a dress. All centered around a pool of water. I was consistently reminded of the Cirque du Soleil show "O" in Las Vegas, but that only tells you I know more about the history of casino shows on the Strip than I do Greek mythology.

Our docents for the evening were NBC commentators Bob Costas and Katie Couric. They kept explaining the artistic symbolism as it was being shown, which I think defeats the purpose of artistic symbolism. "This symbolizes the evolution of a logical being into knowledge," Costas said as a man tiptoed across a large cube suspended in midair.

Can't it be a symbol for one lousy second?

Bob and Katie made sure we didn't feel conflicted when the Iraqi Olympic team entered the stadium during the Parade of Nations. "However you may feel about America's involvement in Iraq, this is a great sports story," Costas said, reading something he'd perhaps punched up in first class flying from New York to Athens, between dinner and watching "The Bourne Supremacy" on his portable DVD. "As battles rage in Najaf and elsewhere ... within Iraq's borders, an Australian Defense Force airlifted the Iraqi Olympic team out of Baghdad on a secret flight this week."

"Their return to these Games," Couric said, "represents a tremendous triumph, not only for the athletes but for the people of Iraq."

Bob and Katie had less clarity about how the people of Iraq regarded Bjork's dress. Too much? What's the word on the streets of Najaf, Bob? The Icelandic pop star sang a song I couldn't hear, though this mattered less than the spectacular visual: The train of her dress, 30,000 square feet of material, was gradually draped over the heads of the athletes, who by then had promenaded into the stadium and were collected on the infield. Somewhere under that dress, I'd like to think, NBA star Allen Iverson was on the cellphone to his agent, getting recommendations on where to grab some good late-night souvlaki. That's my Olympic dream.

Over the weekend, the Games themselves began, and I learned a few things: For instance, a man can dive in sync with another man and not have to resign as the governor of New Jersey.

Actually, I slowly grew fascinated by this relatively new event, synchronized diving. Two people try to dive in perfect unison. They can't, they probably feel horrible, maybe they're cursing each other on the way down, or under water, then a commentator draws a line to illustrate where the forms diverged, where things went awry.

What can I tell you, it felt like couples therapy.

On NBC, Saturday night's main event was swimmer Michael Phelps' first gold medal triumph, in the 400-meter individual medley.

In the foregone-conclusion department, the network teed things up with an up-close-and-personal segment, whereupon they cut to the pool, whereupon Phelps won, whereupon Phelps got out of the pool, whereupon, still breathing heavily, he was asked by NBC's Andrea Joyce if he could have scripted things any better. Whereupon Phelps said no. Whereupon NBC cut to commercials, whereupon we saw Phelps, in an ad for Visa, God of Debt, swimming the world, from the Parthenon in Athens to the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Synchronicity.

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