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All in The Eye of the Beholder

5 minute read
Pico Iyer

There is a beauty to seeing something once, in a flash, in a blur, scarcely understood. Not the small print of the moment: just the block capitals — a hand raised in victory, a body, perfectly straightened, entering the water. Lightning strikes just once, after all; it is the nature of an epiphany that it cannot be repeated.

Which begins to explain why so many people still go to the Olympic Games, relying on the squinting eye when the most expensive television project in history is sending out lucid and poetic montages of body and mood. For TV often catches all the beauty of an event but loses something of the feeling, like a fashion shot that captures a perfect face while leaving one unmoved. Technology can make everything seem too technical: slow motion slows emotions until they seem unreal; instant replays replay the instant again and again until it means less and less, like Warhol’s soup cans. Carl Lewis in flight, Jackie Joyner-Kersee in extremis are things of beauty: taken apart on the picture tube, they lose all contact with the natural.

Television, too, can easily turn into a nonstop highlight film. It misses life around the edges, where life is lived most colorfully. TV intensifies some moments by ignoring others. In the first heat of the 3,000-meter steeplechase last week, Davendra Singh of Fiji was quickly out of the picture. Quite literally. Within a few laps, Singh was already so far behind the pack that the camera didn’t even follow him. Yet still he kept on going. One could imagine the view from his end: the dispiriting sight of distant bodies receding as he tried to catch them, then the even more desolating sight of nothing but open track. That is why the lonely figure, isolated as a marathon runner, received the loudest cheers of all. It is also why all eyes except the camera’s were trained on the lanky 32-year-old man with dark, long legs and yellow shoes. His was not a telegenic image, just a human one.

It is not so much the senses that TV misses — the smell of the chalk, the feel of the sun, the deafening chants that greet every Korean judoka — as it is the confusion. TV likes the orderly. It cannot, therefore, catch the lovely mayhem of gymnastics, the dizzying lyricism of a four-square circus in which everything is happening at once: a Japanese girl running furiously toward the | vault, even as an East German prances through her floor exercises, a Guatemalan teeters on the balance beam, a Bulgarian attacks the parallel bars. The first time one sees a gymnast leap, one’s heart flies with her.

TV, by comparison, plays cunning tricks with dimension, makes the teddy- bear-size female gymnasts seem larger than they are, the redwood basketball players smaller. And TV distances as it disinfects, replacing an event with a picture of an event, the unimaginable with an image. Most of all, TV, by breaking down miracles into their component parts, makes them somehow add up to less than the whole — unweaves, in Keats’ phrase, the rainbow.

At times, of course, one longs for televisual clarity. In the stadium, we do not always know the scores or the stakes. The long jumps all look the same to us. We do not know how to read or rate the dives. Nor can we truly tell our grandchildren that we saw Ben Johnson meet Carl Lewis in the “race of the century”; all we can say is that they whizzed past, at the far end of the stadium, through a javelin net, above a sea of Pizza Hut sun caps, for less than a sixth of a minute. Even in the Olympic stadium, it is often easiest to follow the action on the scoreboard screen.

But easiness is not the point. And the screen removes us to an alien realm of facts and figures and statistics (Who ever fell in love with something for its numbers?). TV smooths out doubts, negates surprise, presents us with only the finished product and the finish line; it focuses our eyes for us, boxes events and offers them up in gift-wrapped segments. It robs us, in short, of that special thrill of almost missing a great moment, then coming upon it suddenly, as if by chance, and feeling it is our own. Ultimately, then, the issue comes down to a version of the riddle about free will: Do we want perfection, always, or the freedom to do wrong? Do we seek the opportunity to squander opportunity? Those who did were the ones who came to Seoul, who tried in vain to make sense of the repechage and gave up the sprints for the lusty cheers around the Korean women’s hockey team. For them, the Games lost something of their drama — and recovered their humanity.

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