Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic Unease: A Phenomenology of Fandom

I have long watched televised sports without the sound because commentators drive me nuts with their vacuous mumblings. Half the time you can say exactly what they are going to say when they say it and the other half of the time you are glad you would never have thought of anything so dumb.

The Olympics are perhaps the worst. The announcers are such homers, openly cheering for the Americans and taking nasty cheap shots at competitors from other nations. I hate it. The most indicative moment was from the winter games a decade or so back when American speed skater Dan Jansen who had been featured to death and was expected to win the gold medal, wiped out in a race. The American commentator looking to make excuses (because clearly an American athlete, much less one expected to win gold, certainly would never make a mistake), opened the interview by asking if the ice was slippery tonight. Jansen, looking at her like she was a moron replied, "It's ice. It's always slippery." These people have undermined any enthusiasm I had for watching.

At first, I couldn't figure out exactly what it was. But now I think I get it. My understanding of what it is to be a fan has been shaped by my experiences growing up in Baltimore, a city with a proud sports heritage, but a middle market city whose teams, at best, go through regular rebuilding cycles.

When you are a fan of teams that don't often win championships, being a fan means having hope in the face of doubt. You know they probably won't, but what is wonderful are the moments where you can see a glimmer of chance that they might. And when they do...WOW.

But cheering for the US in the Olympics is different. It's like rooting for the Yankees or Duke. It's not the thrill of hope and possibility, it's about entitlement and expectation. If they lose, it wasn't some heroic effort against the odds that inspires us with their moxy, rather it is a let down, a disappointment. We deserved that gold, it should have been ours. How dare someone else take it. It's like rooting for corporate lawyers in a product liability case. It just feels wrong.