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Winners and winners
August 21, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Michael Phelps and the other gold medalists haven’t been the only winners at the Beijing Olympics.
Despite the incessant focus on being first —measured in ridiculously tiny fractions of a second or the cockeyed impression of a gymnastics judge — there’s still more than enough victory to go around.
The notion that a superbly conditioned athlete who comes in last in a race is somehow a “loser” may be how the Olympic games are played — but the game of life is different.
Unlike the Visa commercials, life accepts everything. Character can be shaped and strengthened as much by one career-ending misstep on a diving board or clipping a hurdle as by a little piece of metal, no matter how precious or shiny.
A half century ago, “Wide World of Sports” observed that the thrill of victory doesn’t exist without the agony of defeat. For competitors, sport is the challenge that pushes them to their limits. For those of us watching, sport is storytelling. At its best, it pushes us to our limits, too.
And the story has rarely been better than it has for the last two weeks, brought into our consciousness from Beijing by NBC.
Here in the islands, “The Merrie Monarch” telecast has demonstrated that television can be more than entertainment. It can use the latest technology to go back to ancient sources. It can cross the ocean, not to mention language and cultural barriers, to transform isolated viewers into members of a single unified audience.
The Olympics accomplishes the same thing. Only bigger, bridging all the world’s “islands” with the threads of our shared humanity.
Despite all the potential minefields — the political undercurrents and nationalism, the commercial exploitation, the Michael Phelps overload —this has been a case of television transcending itself. While the cutting-edge technology has been almost flawless in enhancing the competitions, the human drama is still what it’s all about.
The athletes’ incredible conditioning and drive, along with physical abilities seemingly from another planet, have been matched countless times by the presence they exhibit in front of the cameras after their event.
Some of the so-called losers have surpassed the victors in this regard. Sometimes mettle trumps a medal. Cheering the winners is exhilarating. But there’s honor, too, in the courage it takes just to make it to the starting line, to put it all out there, to sacrifice everything for a dream, to take your chances, to risk losing it all in a second that will last the rest of your life.
For the last couple of weeks, our usual cast of damaged role models on the covers of the supermarket tabloids has been replaced by far worthier subjects. Our obsession with celebrities acting badly has momentarily given way to better stuff.
While the contests themselves have to be about winning, the Olympics are about so much more. Even from such a great distance, culturally as well as geographically, even squeezed into the narrow confines of a television screen, just coming in contact with it has made winners of us all.
If the Olympics measure reality to the hundredth of a second, this week’s top movie at the box office, “Tropic Thunder,” is about unreality and illusions piled up one layer on top of another.
Directed, co-written and co-starring Ben Stiller along with pals Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and a deeply camouflaged Tom Cruise, it’s a “making of” spoof, retooling the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama “Platoon” as a comedy.
A saga of Hollywood egos lost in the jungle, its cast play insecure movie stars a lot like themselves. Black portrays the star of a string of fart-joke comedies. Stiller is an action hero on the skids. Downey is the Australian method actor who dyes his skin to play a black soldier, then riffs hilariously as he stays in character.
With machine-gun timing, “Tropic Thunder” mixes industry in-jokes and narcissistic acting shtick with large-scale war-movie action, complete with helicopters, fake blood and explosions. Eventually its stars find themselves in conflict with a real heroin ring deep in the jungle.
With a great contribution by Cruise (to say any more would spoil the fun), it’s the second act of The Summer of Robert Downey Jr. at the movies. After “Iron Man,” “Tropic Thunder” is the other piece of bread for his Batman sandwich.
Clever, sometimes brilliant, it’s an ambitious undertaking, deftly pulled off by Stiller and company. They offer up an amusing enough breather before you get back to the more serious fun of watching the Olympics.
•Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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