Whether ice or snow, the screen is always white. I long believed it was the high-contrast white balance of the background that made the Winter Olympics such a perfect sporting event for TV.
Especially in the outdoor events, when the sky is such a delicious shade of blue, you can almost feel the air's cold crispness in your own breath. The sight of humans hurtling down hills or flying through the air at speeds bordering on insanity stand out in sharp relief against the snow.
And the indoor ice events - from the feathers and sequins of figure skating to the body slams of hockey - seem designed to show off your new big-screen HD, highlighting the competitors with edges as sharp as skate blades.
Now, if I only had a clue what was going on
The tropics are hardly the place to acquaint yourself with the fine points of the Winter Olympics. The learning gap begins with the basic concept of winter. It's a hard one to wrap your head around when you live in a house that doesn't even have a heater.
The last time it snowed on Haleakala, local families piled into their cars and headed up the mountain, bare feet in rubber slippers running into the patches of white. They built snowmen with stick-branch arms on the hoods of their cars, like a parade of white tikis as they headed back down the mountain to the beach.
Then there's the bewildering culture of winter sports, constantly upping the speed limit for slipping and sliding, ratcheting up the disregard for danger, adding the NASCAR factor of just watching it for the crashes.
As the old-world Nordic origins of skating, skiing and sledding morph into X-game fearlessness (Gravity? Nah, we don't use that stuff ), it's clear that Olympic athletes are wired differently from the rest of us. It's not just the strength and stamina, but the reaction time, the pain threshold, the gyroscopic balance and the absence of any extra baggage (nerves, doubts, fears, distractions) to slow them down.
Most of us can't discern the fractions of seconds that mean the difference between a gold medal and obscurity, but that's the time zone where Olympic athletes live. And, in one case this year, died.
And, as though the blink-of-an-eye scoring weren't challenging enough, then there's the judging. Can anybody - anybody - explain figure skating? Keeping track of how many turns happened in mid-air is bad enough; knowing how well the skaters executed the moves is like sleight of hand.
Listening to the commentators, alternately screaming or groaning as they throw around terms like "toe loop," "salchow" and "quad," hardly helps clarify things as you watch the blurs flying around the ice, the gorgeous women and the men in costumes that would get them arrested, or beaten up, if they wore them out of the arena.
Seeing parts company with believing when you don't know what your looking for. It's not until the action stops and the athletes respond to the microphones thrust in their faces - sometimes after winning by a fraction of a point or a second, sometimes after losing by just that much - do you finally get it:
The Olympics are all about the stories.
As amazing as the physical feats may be, those superhuman acts are being carried out by very human beings. Their bodies, pushed to the limit, can break. The challenges to the emotions are even greater and the ones to the spirit, even greater than that.
It was the late television visionary Roone Arledge who realized sport was all about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." He illustrated the point, fittingly enough, with a ski jumper flying off a ramp sideways.
We may not get figure-skating scoring, but we get the stories. It's the stories - not the white background - that make the Olympics what they are.
NBC is doing a great job of covering them, and reaping the rewards in the ratings. Analysts have noted the increase in TV viewership in recent months, for major events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl and all the award shows leading up to the Oscars March 7.
Reality TV has come full circle. Turns out it's a lot better when we get to watch the pros doing it.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.