Commentary: Olympics the only truly global TV event

Beijing Games to be one of the remembered ones

Even the numbers stick in the mind: 2 billion tuned in for the Opening Ceremony, Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories in a day and 148 kilos fell on that hapless Hungarian weightlifter.

The Olympics is arguably the only truly TV event left worthy of the "global appointment viewing" designation, and so far it has disappointed on few fronts.

For NBC, the results must be a relief after a year of flagging ratings, fleeing advertisers and a discombobulated development season. There's been a nice diversity of countries making it to the podium and many world records broken.

Major snafu so far: water leaking into Phelps' goggles. Major disruption: a seemingly random off-site murder of an American. There have been few mishaps other than the always-fun-to-watch falls from the pommel horse and a couple of disqualifications and injuries. Practically no scandals have surfaced other than the substitution of little Lin Miaoke for the less photogenic but better-voiced Yang Peiyi during the Opening Ceremony. (And we thought China didn't subscribe to Hollywood-style subterfuge!)

Even the announcers seem astonished at the level and consistency of stateside viewership and have been quick to prime the Phelps pump to ensure that those numbers don't fall off. The network's bets on delayed programming in primetime also seem to be paying off.

Still, only aficionados (and network rights-holders) remember how the Olympic Games rated on their various outlets. But millions if not billions of people worldwide can long afterward conjure up the image that best captures the tone of a particular Olympiad.

The two-week marathon in Beijing is not half over, but already there are several striking images, starting with director Zhang Yimou's color-perfect, technically astonishing Opening Ceremony, which will be etched in people's memories for decades to come.

I'm making no political analogy, but almost certainly the images of the flag-waving crowd, the dancers, NBA star Yao Ming circling the stadium alongside a tiny earthquake survivor and the evocative, airlifted lighting of the Olympic cauldron will become as emblematic of the emergent Chinese powerhouse as Leni Riefenstahl's breathtakingly beautiful shots of Aryan athletes poeticized the Nazi regime and its values.

In China's case -- and this is one of the reasons I think so many nonsports enthusiasts have been intrigued enough to tune in -- the interest is as much to see how the most populous and soon enough the most powerful country on Earth handles itself on the world stage. Would it slip and fall or go on to win gold?

It's been decades since such revelations were intertwined with the Games. Arguably, Rome in 1960 was such a window opened on a country or a region -- in that case a chance to see how Europe had righted itself after World War II with the help of the Marshall Plan, let alone how Third World athletes found, as it were, their footing there. One also could posit that Munich in 1972 was the most dramatic example of just how volatile and deadly the mess in the Mideast was destined to become.

So what will they be talking about, barring the unforeseen, from this Olympics?

Most notably, that this two-week stretch will go down as a watershed event in redefining the balance of power in the world, for what sounds like petty one-upmanship in the number and color of medals is really about the rapid transformation of a society in about as many terms as one can conjure: visually, the astounding skyline of Beijing and the elegant functionality of the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube; culturally, a new degree of openness that means a formerly blacklisted director can be tapped to choreograph the opening; and economically, a ferocious embrace of consumer capitalism.

OK, and then there are the sports and athletes who are galvanizing viewer attention.

First and foremost there's Phelps, who already has amassed more gold medals than any other athlete in the 112 years of the modern Games. Breathtaking finishes and an easy likability combine to make his story readily televisual. How his career will be fought over and managed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue remains to be seen, but given his gargantuan appetite for junk food of all sorts, the pizza and burger guys will likely be all over him.
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