The Rio Olympics Uneven bars, Uneven Programming Decisions

Much like Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint, tonight’s primetime Olympic coverage got off to a rough start, but came to a satisfying end.


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One thing I’ve noticed recapping Olympic coverage for nearly a decade is that if we don’t see an entire event, it’s hard to be invested. Take women’s springboard diving. We pop in a few rounds in, and the announcers just rattle off a little about the current standings and how the first few rounds went. Just like actual, scripted television, enjoying the Olympics as a non-sports fan requires some sort of narrative arc. Diving is not one of those stories that you can begin en media res, you know? Unless they’ve got a Lost-style flashback episode ready, I do not care to be shown just a couple of dives from the presumptive winners. In fact, when they don’t even really show you the folks out of medal contention, it’s hard to even appreciate how good the top performers actually are.

For example, did anyone else catch this story about the qualifying dive in which a Russian diver earned a 0.0 in what is now known as the worst dive in Olympic history? It’s crazy! Not because it was so awful, but because it showed me that even a terrible dive still looks incredibly hard to do! Observe:

Maybe this all seems counterintuitive, because I’ve been bellyaching about all these semifinals and heats, so let me break it down for NBC programmers. When it comes to running and swimming, we know what’s good. We know what winning looks like. It’s simple. Be the first person to the finish line. It’s not hard! We’ve all been doing it since we were old enough to declare “Last one there is a rotten egg!” Therefore, I only care about seeing the finals for the medals. If anything interesting happens in the semis or qualifying rounds (which it rarely does), show me that clip later. Despite the overexposure of Kerri Walsh Jennings, tournament-style events like volleyball, water polo, soccer, basketball and tennis are easy to watch and at least sort of self-contained little stories in each match. For events where competitors are performing one at a time (long jump, high jump, shot put), I have less of a frame of reference, so the more you show me, the better I’ll understand when someone’s performance is good or bad. And for events that are scored subjectively (diving, gymnastics, I don’t know, trampoline?), I want to see everything so I can play armchair Simon Cowell and give my own two cents. Throw in some Mary Carillo and Johnny Weir/Tara Lipinski packages, and ta-da! That’s your Olympics. You’re welcome.

Anyway, back to diving. The Chinese win gold and silver, while Italy’s Tania Cagnotto wins bronze. American Abby Johnston does not medal, but goes back to med school, and really being an Olympic diver and also a doctor is still enough to base a Shonda Rhimes show on, even if you never win a medal, so I don’t feel particularly bad.

Then we’re on the track, and, you guys, I gotta be honest, I did a poor job paying attention. The event everyone’s really jazzed about is the men’s 100m, because it features Usain Bolt. That man is a DELIGHT. Bob Costas does a little sitdown with the world’s fastest man where Bolt says he’s the most famous Jamaican besides Bob Marley. Costas directly addresses the criticism that Bolt is a bit of a showoff, drawing a line between showmanship and showing off, which, OK, sure. I didn’t realize Bob Costas was part of Bolt’s PR team, but whatever. I’m not really expecting Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff here.

Anyway, Bolt obviously qualifies for the final in his semifinal race. One of his competitors even gets a false start and disqualified, because, fuck it, who cares, Usain Bolt is going to win this, right?

“OR IS HE?” NBC would like you to be asking. His only potential threat is American Justin Gatlin, the man who won the gold 12 years ago. In addition to being smoking hot, a brief video package shows Gatlin working out shirtless, but also details his rise and fall after testing positive for steroids. It was Gatlin’s second drug violation, the first for amphetamines, which Gatlin claimed were part of treating his A.D.D. OK, everyone makes mistakes right? Except then he tested positively for steroids. BUT! He claims he was sabotaged by a disgruntled masseuse whom allegedly rubbed a steroid cream on Gatlin without his knowledge. Huh … But! Wait! Another twist! Gatlin’s coach is widely believed to be some sort of Olympic Breaking Bad steroid kingpin, with eight of the athletes he’s coached testing positive for steroids. Gatlin received a four-year ban for all this mishegas, but he’s back and very fast. Could he be the one to beat Usain?

No. No, he can’t. Usain Bolt wins the gold again, because obviously. Thanks for playing, Gatlin. Choose your consolation masseuse wisely.
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The other notable race was the men’s 400m with South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk. Before the race, we learn WVN has a 74-year-old coach, Anna Botha. In addition to being a great-grandmother to four, she’s also a former sprinter and long-jumper. She’s been pushing WVN, and he’s been poised to make history with a new World Record. That’s not the only powerful woman in his corner. His mother was an athlete, but that was back during apartheid when only white athletes could compete internationally. She’s incredible.

Van Niekerk obliterates his competition and the world record, running the 400m in just a fraction of a hair over 43 seconds.

Now, we take the party inside for some men’s gymnastics, which got me feeling like:

We’re here for floor exercises. For the men, there’s some weird Footloose twist where there’s no music? It makes the whole thing feel very joyless and boring. (Life hack: Just softly play Jock Jams in the background while you watch!)

Still, everyone is very handsome, so I power through. The Americans, who both look like they could part of the RuPaul’s Drag Race Pit Crew, give pretty shaky performances. Jake Dalton earns a 15.133 and Sam Mikulak gets a 14.33. Even “the Twisting Prince” of Japan, Kenzo Shirai falters, only earning a 15.366.

Pocket hottie Max Whitlock from Great Britain takes the gold with an awesome 15.633 routine. The real story though is that the Japanese and Americans’ poor performances opened the door for Brazilians Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano to claim silver and bronze. When they realized they were going to medal, they broke down crying in the most endearing (and somehow still sexy!) way. Not even like single tears streaming down face. I’m talking about full out wailing like a Sicilian funeral. Come here, boys, I got a shoulder you can cry on.
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Next up: Women’s vault, where Simone Biles earns the United States’ first ever gold in the women’s vault with a staggering 16.033. This girl is a goddamn superhero. Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber gets the bronze, and becomes her country’s first female to win a gymnastics medal. Forty-one-year-old Oksana Chusovitina from Uzebkistan tumbles on her landing and fails to medal in her seventh Olympic Games.

Now onto the uneven bars! First up, Gabby Douglas, who’s been looking fierce as hell with some bold lip choices. She’s also been drawing a lot of online ire, which just bums me out. Sure, this hasn’t been the best games for Douglas. Although she did get a gold with her team, she was shut-out of defending her London all-around gold because of the stupid two-per-country rule, and she fails to medal here in the bars. However, if you’re feeling down seeing all the hate being thrown Douglas’ way, allow me to share an anecdote I repeat to myself when I see some nastiness about all the incredible young girls of color crushing it in Rio. My husband (and friend of Foolish Watcher), Nathan, worked as a librarian at an elementary school in New York City and said there were waitlists for kids checking out biographies of Gabby Douglas. That’s awesome. And I’m sure they will be doing the same with Simone Biles. Never has “fuck the haters” been more apropos.

Douglas’ teammate Madison Kocian took home the silver after sticking a sick landing that you need to see to believe:

Their Russian rival Aliya Mustafina successfully defended her London gold.

The evening ended with another win for Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross on their steady march to the beach volleyball podium.

Bob Costas tucked us into bed with two hard-hitting interviews. The first was with Michael Phelps, whom Costas prodded repeatedly to not fully rule out another run at Tokyo, to which Phelps underscored, again, that, no, seriously, he’s done. Stop being so goddamn thirsty, NBC! Overall, Phelps came off mature and humble and very sweet. It almost makes me hope he can retire and maintain a wholesome image and not have his dick pics leak in a big, Brett Favre-esque scandal. Almost.

Then Costas sits down with the head of IOC Thomas Bach, and asks him if, given all the crime and dirty water and Zika virus and political turmoil that maybe, I don’t know, perhaps Rio wasn’t the best choice? Bach is like, “Nah.” And that’s it! If you want to see more, you’ll have to watch the rest of the interview online. That settles it, then!

Therese gets a packed night tonight with medals being awarded in men’s pole vault, men’s 800m, women’s 400m, men’s rings, men’s vault and women’s balance beam.

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