i Need Media

i Need Media

Un-American activities: Rooting against the home team in London

By Matthew Singer 08/02/2012

As I write this column, I am watching the Olympics. Specifically, I’m watching the U.S. Men’s Olympic Volleyball Team potentially choke away a two-sets-to-none lead against Serbia. Full disclosure: I know nothing about volleyball. I’m not even totally sure how it’s scored. (It’s like tennis, right?) And yet, after stumbling across the game on a listless Sunday afternoon, I find myself developing a rooting interest in the outcome. That’s the Olympics for you: For four years, you couldn’t care less about archery or badminton or handball (although it should be said that Olympic handball is actually pretty awesome); next thing you know, the trampoline gymnastics semifinal’s got you on the edge of your seat.

Here’s the thing, though: Allegiances are crucial to the experience of spectating an athletic competition. Without knowing anything about these sports or the people participating in them, how do we choose whom to invest our emotions in? As an American, the default, of course, is to cheer on the Americans. That’s fine for some people. But for me, the Olympics are about stories, not blind loyalty. That’s why, if there’s a narrative in the United States’ defeat, I will root against my own country. Call me an unpatriotic pinko liberal. But what’s the fun of watching our volleyball team crush a hapless Eastern European squad? They’re the defending gold medalists. Winning is what they’re supposed to do. But if the Serbs come back and actually beat them? That’s a great story. Who knew Serbia even had a concept of the game of volleyball? I’m presuming it’s only because they’ve got a surplus of Top Gun videocassettes lying around.

In other words, I watch the Olympics the same way I watch any sporting event in which I have no preconceived bias: I just want a close game, and I want the underdog to pull out a win. And in most cases, the United States is the Goliath. Even in basketball — my favorite sport by a wide margin — I’d rather see Team USA get upset than destroy its opponents by 37 points. I derive no joy from watching LeBron James posterize some poor Tunisian forward. Barring a string of injuries or a catastrophic meltdown, this team is going to cruise to the gold, and frankly, that’s boring. A lot of the chatter this summer has been about the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team, the alleged “greatest basketball team ever assembled” that dominated the 1992 games in Barcelona. I find the 2004 team, which barely managed a bronze, far more intriguing. Unexpected failures are always more interesting than guaranteed victories. It’s the reason the Miracle on Ice still captures the American imagination more than anything else that’s ever happened at the Winter Olympics, except in reverse. Wouldn’t a “Miracle on the Parquet” be just as thrilling, even if happened against our guys?

Of course, by definition, those kind of stories are rare. Speaking of, the American volleyball team held on to beat Serbia three sets to zilch. I was unmoved. 

I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just happy Breaking Bad is back. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.

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