Thiel: Greatest Olympics story was Great Britain


by Art Thiel


Posted on August 14, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 14 at 9:30 PM

Time seems more expensive these days than a gallon of gas. Professionally speaking, the arrival of the football training camps of the Seahawks and Huskies, along with the turgid seasonal sagas of the Mariners and Sounders,  and the persistent roil of the Chris Hansen arena proposal, left me only fragments in which to watch the Olympics.

And personally, the addition of a visit to Montana for a memorial service the past weekend for a relative -- a voracious sports fan -- made it seem as if my Oly time ran out before the Games did. I felt a little cheated. Particularly after having the privilege of covering the past four Summer Games in person for the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

I have written that the view of the Olympics provided by NBC barely resembles what the festival looks like on the ground. Too often NBC gets caught up in the generic soap opera of the day (or worse, Bela Karolyi) at the expense of news, investigation or truth-telling about operations, security, conflicts, costs, sacrifices and real-life dramas of the host city and nation.

Having said that, I found a free hour Saturday night, and lucked into the best TV story of the Olympics.

Had nothing to do with Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, a medalist from Tajikistan or the irresistibly giggly trampoline guy, Dong Dong.

NBC's Tom Brokaw was given resources and a precious prime-time hour -- starting at 8 p.m. -- to explain to the American TV audience in documentary form "Their Finest Hour," the story of Britain's incredible survival of the German blitz of London that lasted for 76 days  (90 second video summary here).

The documentary didn't break new ground but told a story that many younger viewers transfixed by sports were unlikely to have appreciated unless it was force-fed them. NBC took a ratings risk of annoying sports fans. The network invested two years of research and many hours of film recovery and interviews to tell a horrific tale of warfare that gave visceral meaning to sacrifice and perseverance, terms that are tossed about the sports arena so easily.

It should take such a ratings risk for every Olympics. Let Yippee and Skippee speak for themselves.

The same London that has received universal raves for a hosting job well done was 72 years earlier a fetid, burning pile of death, mayhem and despair. Rarely has the Battle of Britain been conveyed so poignantly and explained, absent dogma, so vividly for modern viewers. A turning point in world history was fought upon the grounds that now celebrated the frontiers of human achievement.

It would be futile to attempt here a recounting of the pivotal tragedy and triumph of World War II that consumed 76,000 lives in London from the blitz alone. But it is worth advocating that every two years when the Olympics arrives somewhere, massive international spotlight in tow, the big story needs to be told of the hosts, in unflinching depth.

To be honest, the stories of athletes, however endearing and true, have become numbingly familiar. So many sports, so many deceased relatives, so many countries flashing by. Sensory overload is inevitable. Impact is lost.

But every host city and nation has a story bigger than the Games, darkness as much as light, despair as much as hope. The story may be continuing and may be offensive to the host country -- for example, the barbarism of Mao against his own people is a story never told in China and only skirted by the Olympic media visitors to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing -- but often foreshadows much about contemporary events. There is an important need to know, and few are the media empires remaining that can tell a deep, difficult story.

NBC told the story so well Saturday that it has now virtually obligated itself to match the feat every Olympics. The hope is that when the Games arrive in Russia in 2014 and in Brazil in 2016, the network will embrace the challenge instead of running from it.

Before every Olympics, there is much criticism, frenzy and controversy in the host city and nation. Hosting an Olympics is thisclose to impossible, and almost always economically unjustifiable, yet each site pulls it off, in varying degrees. In July, one British newspaper, summarizing what it believed to be multiple major messes, felt compelled to invent a word to describe the London prep: "Omnishambles." (Remember this wonderful word when Seattle's big dig starts for the tunnel that replaces the Alaskan Way Viaduct.)

Yet the Brits, amid current decline and despair, found workarounds to omnishambles. From what I saw, they pulled off an omnismashing show.

I was struck by one line in an editorial Monday in the London Independent newspaper:  “Hosting the Olympics has boosted national morale more than any single event in most people’s living memory. The capital and country have been transformed.”

When all the bills come due, the boast may prove to be hyperbole, a product of the ephemeral glow of immediate glory. But in this Olympics pride, whether in Parliament, the pubs or the stadiums, there is a special resonance for a people who have prevailed in much more serious times.

Without an understanding of British resolve that is still a living story capable of being found and told, the Olympics celebration is just another party. When the unmistakable voice of Winston Churchill is heard saying, "Never has so much been owed by so many to so few," more than historians will now understand better the true meaning of sacrifice and perseverance.

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