Highs and Lows in Rio in Living Color

The best thing about the 2016 Olympic Games is that they’re on television.

The worst thing about the 2016 Olympic Games is that they’re on television.

There is nothing for it but to endure. NBC, which appears to have the coverage rights nailed down through 2050, when Bob (100 is the new 60) Costas, standing in the new city of Miami (now located in Orlando, since the old one is underwater) will offer a rationale for making golf our official national sport.

Of course, in the digital age, you can find just about every sport event in the Olympics somehow, somewhere, streaming live. But the packaged network deal, that’s still something special, and also something cringe-worthy.

This year’s 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro come with enough baggage to fill Guanabara Bay, where rowers and sailors are competing — oh, wait, that’s already heavily polluted. When have we seen the opening ceremonies presided over by an acting head of state? This one was, which spoke loudly to the political chaos that exists in Brazil, where an impeachment process against sitting president Dilma Rousseff is moving apace amid a major meltdown of the Brazilian economy, some of it brought on by the cost of the Games. All this gives new meaning to the Trumpian slogan: “Lock her up.”

Rio is a kind of living embodiment of that concept of financial disparity — it’s in plain sight everywhere you go. The city has some of the largest and poorest, although, by all accounts, culturally vibrant, slums in the world. They stand in contrast to some of the wealthiest sections of Rio, which is known for its perpetual samba and carnival parties and parades and for its spectacular vistas, topped by the 98-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue on top of the 2,300-foot Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. It is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

The Olympics had to burst out of a cloud of anxiety and controversy — anxiety because of the Zika disease, which appears to have been birthed here, controversy and scandal because large numbers of athletes, including the entire Russian track and field team, have been banned from the competition.

In spite of all this, the Olympics are always replete with spectacle and stories, examples of achieving seemingly impossible goals through dedication and perseverance. Television attempts to humanize these efforts by inserting extra dollops of drama and sentiment into the lives of athletes, the majority of whom arrive at the Olympics in obscurity, and leave in the same condition. To use a popular verbal expression that covers sports, invention, politics and business, it’s the journey that matters. A few competitors will suddenly be propelled into the spotlight and onto the medal stand. Some become known due to heartbreaking losses: the cyclist who crashed hard on the way to a medal, another who led her race the whole way until the final moments.

NBC has a way of rising to eloquent heights with its visuals and descending into banal depths with its commentaries, sometimes simultaneously. This kind of balance of highs and lows is especially true for the opening night ceremonies, when the host country puts on a spectacular show about itself. These often look like a combination of tourist promotions, National Geographic specials and patriotic explosions of pride, with a cast of thousands, fireworks beyond compare and projections that create entire worlds on the field.

In spite of its limited means and the hurdles that planners faced, Rio did a remarkably good job with the opening ceremonies. Watching countless human extras in eye-candy costumes, abetted by projections that conjured oceans and created and spirited away the Amazon rainforest, we got a keen sense of a culture and a state: a great melting pot of Portuguese settlers and exploiters, Africans caught up in the slave trade and the indigenous peoples, meeting, clashing, transforming and becoming Brazil.

But after a while, in spite of the avalanche of banalities from the “Today Show” commentators, you embraced the occasion as one always does. This is about athletes, after all, in peak vitality and condition, who can run and jump and fly, and swim and dive and pole-vault and throw things, and row and swim, and run and jump, and shoot guns and arrows, ride bikes and leap and do amazing things with their bodies on rings and floor mats.

For viewers, the parade of athletes, bursting onto the stadium’s circular track, is like a giant geography lesson, a lesson in common — and uncommon — and diverse humanity. Sure, we’re all proud of the American athletes and stars. This was gold-laden swimmer Michael Phelps’s fifth Olympics, and first time as flag carrier. He got another win in a relay event. And this was another part of the journey of the amazing local girl and superswimmingstarphenombeyondsuperlatives Katie Ledecky, who won a silver, then smashed into smithereens the world record for the 400-meter freestyle.

God bless the American basketball team, all millionaire pros ensconced in their own private quarters in a cruise ship. And there is something both jazzy and sublime in the wickedly small star American gymnast Simone Biles and her many, many impossible leaps, stretches, moves and fancy flights.

Just when you get tired of another commercial in which a snappy pet store employee explains to a group of dogs why they have been — ahem — fixed, something happens that makes things unexpectedly worthwhile. On Sunday, we watched, for no reason at all except perhaps to avoid “60 Minutes,” a beginning-to-end competition in the women’s three-meter synchronized springboard diving event. In five dives, pairs of divers spun, tucked and achieved great heights and smooth entries, like a knife in water.

The Chinese team of the remarkable 30-year-old Wu Minxia and Shi Tingmao swept to victory, making Minxia the most decorated diver ever with six gold medals. Getting the silver was something special too for Italian Tania Cagnotto, diving with Francesca Dallape. Cagnotto had been in four Olympics already without a medal of any sort, coming within a point at the London Olympics.

This event, with nary an American competitor in sight, was dramatic, beautiful to watch and moving. You could see Cagnotto’s father in the audience, you could see the determined set of Minxia’s shoulders before and after every dive. Every dive is a mini-drama of an attempt to achieve perfection, which is to make an entry into the water — almost cojoined like twins — without the water noticing. Minxia and Tingmao almost managed to still the waters in every dive.

The Olympics — this one and all of them — are replete with moments, strung together like a floor-length necklace, sparkling long after everyone has retreated from the scene.

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