I took this picture yesterday evening from my seat in the Olympic Stadium. You can see the world's fastest human, Usain Bolt, standing on the medalists' podium, about to receive his gold medal for the men's 100 meters. You can see the cockiness on his face. You can see...
Oh, wait. You can't. I'm too far away. I used a 50mm lens for this shot, to approximate what the eye sees. Even if I'd used my telephoto, though, the scene would still be remote.
And that's just one of the many challenges of watching athletics at the Olympics. It's no wonder that the popularity of athletics relative to football and basketball has declined steadily in recent decades. The sport doesn't lend itself to television, and it's not easy to follow in the stadium, either.
There are usually two or three events going on at once. Last night, for instance, it was the women's 200 meter heats, women's shot put, and women's pole vault. I'd stare at the finish line, trying to figure out which runners advanced to the semifinals by finishing first or second. And as I did, I missed a key vault by someone else I was trying to follow.
The organizers do a rather poor job of helping fans out. There are two big score-and-video boards in the arena. Sometimes they show what I'm interested in seeing, and I get the same view that TV viewers get of Usain Bolt's face during the Jamaican anthem. (Which ought to be, by the way, "One Love" by Bob Marley, but isn't. Can you imagine the stadium rocking to that song every time a Jamaican won a gold medal? Seriously.) But all too often, when I want to know the current standings in the shot put, the boards are both showing the lineup for Heat 4 in the 200 meters. There are half a dozen auxiliary display boards around the roof of the arena, but the organizers have unforgiveably wasted their potential. They could have dedicated each of them to showing up-to-the-minute information about a specific event. Instead, they usually say something like "London 2012." Presumably, most of the spectators already know they're in London and it's 2012.
There are two stadium announcers. One is a British voice. He doesn't seem to know much about athletics, and he hasn't bothered to learn to pronounce many of the athletes' names. Last night, for instance, he continuously referred to a Russian shot-putter whose name is Yevgenia as "Evgenii." This is akin to calling a woman named Paula, "Paul." Maybe he was trying to make a point about the masculinity of women shot putters, but I doubt it. I can only imagine how he butchers Chinese names.
The second announcer is a Canadian named Garry Hill, who works for Track and Field News, the magazine which sponsors the tour I am on. Hill is an expert, and he does learn to pronounce the athletes' names. He rattles off helpful information, like the fact that the Jamaican sprinter in lane four won the last world championships or that a Chilean woman who finished out of the medals in the shot put has at least the consolation of setting a new Chilean record. But even Hill can find the action befuddling. Last night, he announced that defending gold medalist Yelena Isenbayeva still had two tries left in the pole vault when in fact Isenbayeva had been eliminated. That's because athletics can get pretty arcane. Isenbayeva had passed (decided not to jump) on her final attempt at 4.75 meters, which is an option vaulters have. That meant she only got one try at 4.80 meters. But Hill either didn't know or forgot that she had passed at after two misses at 4.75.
American television can get closer to the action and it can assign an expert to follow each event. But NBC truncates the competition. It tries to create characters out of a few prominent athletes (nearly all Americans) and weave narratives about them. Then it shows those athletes and the climax of their competition. But NBC won't bother to show anything but a few highlights of events in which its marquee characters are not involved. And it assumes that the American audience won't sit still for, say, all 28 minutes of the men's 10,000 meters. So it shows only pieces of the race. Real fans want to see the whole thing. They want to see if the early pace is fast or slow, who's getting jostled in the pack, and what happened to that Mexican kid who bravely stuck with the Kenyans for the first 2,000 meters then faded out of camera view.
And television can't give you the communal Olympic experience, the feeling of being in a crowd of people from many countries, speaking many languages, all trying to figure out what's going on. The gold medal ceremony for a Polish shot-putter is different when you're in close proximity to a row of Polish fans, wearing their nation's colors, quite overcome by pride at their countryman's achievement. On the couch at home, it's not the same.
There are things the International Olympic Committee could and should do to make things more intelligible. There could be more score boards. There could be web sites for each event, accessible to spectators through the handheld devices that virtually all of them now carry.
But I don't think that the IOC will bother. Why should it? My ticket, up in the second deck, cost 150 pounds (about $240). The stadium is full. By the time people can get tired of paying what they pay to see what they see, the Olympics will be over. The IOC will move on to exploit a new market in Brazil in 2016.
The Brazilians will fill their stadium, too.