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Olympics Desperately Need Finishing Kick

Monument of Olympic Games, Tokyo - Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Monument of Olympic Games, Tokyo - Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

We hear so often the complaint that times have changed and not necessarily for the good. From cars to music to food and a million things in between, nothing is quite the same as it once was.

That nostalgic tale is surely told in the sporting realm, too, where some fans with extended memories long for the days when men were men on the field and women were largely unseen.

You’re hearing some of that mythology about this year’s Summer Olympics from Tokyo. Just now past the halfway point, things allegedly don’t feel the way we recall them or want them to be.

Start with who’s not there. There’s no Michael Phelps in the pool, no Usain Bolt on the track. Serena Williams didn’t make the trip to Japan. Neither did Kerri Walsh-Jennings on the beach for volleyball.

For that matter, this is the first Summer Olympics without Bob Costas as the prime-time TV anchor since 1992.

And even those who are familiar weren’t quite what we expected or hoped for. Bethesda-based swimmer Katie Ladecky was great, but not quite dominant.

Novak Djokovic no doubt expected to dominate on the tennis courts in Japan as he has the rest of 2021, but left the Olympics without a medal and after staging a temper tantrum.

And then there was Simone Biles, who came into the Games as the athlete to watch, the most identifiable figure. Biles pulled out of the gymnastics competition, citing a need to get her mind healthy.

These Olympics have a sense of ennui attached for understandable reasons.

The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has cast a pall over the competition on two fronts. First, the Games of the 32nd Olympiad should have taken place last summer, but were delayed because of COVID.

The wisdom of staging them at all has been the subject of debate even up to the week of the first events, where the Japanese Organizing Committee chair speculated that the Games could be canceled because of the continued outbreak.

The competition has gone on, but without spectators, a decision made to avoid a super spreader event in a nation still struggling to get COVID under control.

To their credit, the athletes have competed with the kind of intensity you might expect at the ultimate sporting event. But without the visuals of full arenas and the audio of roaring crowds, the competitions have felt hollow, even from a television set.

And from here in the States, it appears that NBC, which has been doing this since 1988, has lost some of its touch.

The 13-hour gap between Tokyo and Baltimore flips the idea of seeing drama in real time on its head, even as the events are shown live via streaming services.

The announcers, many of whom are calling events from a studio in Connecticut, seem, well, distant. And prime time host Mike Tirico, try as he might, is no Bob Costas.

There’s another week before the cauldron is extinguished and time for magic to be made. Let’s just hope the magic of the Olympic rings hasn’t already gone too stale.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.