Among the many features of China that now hold a special place in my heart, the sports channels of China Central Television deserve high-ranking status. On Sunday night, three Wash. U. friends and I tuned into some CCTV channels to watch the London Olympics.
Before I share the tangential series of thoughts into which the three-hour, five-sport Olympic-viewing session spurned my easily distracted mind, allow me to present my brief but rich history of interaction with the CCTV sports stations.
CCTV and Me: An Introduction
I made my first go-round with CCTV sports during spring break at the memorable Hanting Hotel in Shanghai, where all guests, male or female, were kindly met each day with fresh prostitute calling cards that had been slipped under our doors.
After that striking introduction to China, CCTV Channel 5 provided another source of unexpected comedy. On a show that equated to the Chinese version of SportsCenter, two anchors discussed a soccer match between two teams that I do not recall. Well, one anchor discussed it. The other slumped over slightly, eyelids shut and head bobbing, catching a nice little catnap on the set.
I thought it would be difficult to live up to such a precedent for entertainment, but CCTV sports has only gotten better.
When I returned to China in mid-June, I happily discovered that Channel 5 would be live broadcasting the NBA Finals. I was able to watch Game 4 live from my hotel in Beijing (much higher quality, no calling cards), and besides being one of the more spectacular Finals contests I can remember (the defining game of LeBron’s career), the Chinese commercials added a dimension of excitement that could never have been attained viewing in the U.S.
Super Bowl commercials are supposed to be funny when companies spend millions of dollars on them, but they are very rarely the least bit funny. However, my respect for Chinese advertisers at least quintupled when a Sprite commercial with Kobe Bryant and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou aired. Bryant strums a guitar alongside Chou in front of a roaring Chinese audience.
Someone from Budweiser needs to hire the mastermind behind the Kobe-Chou concept. That’s the best commercial I’ve seen Nike’s Air Force 25 spot (nothing can top Air Force 25—the only commercial I would ever seriously consider DVRing).
The best part of the Sprite spot? Since the commercials for the Finals broadcast were very limited, the ad aired at least four or five times, mixed in with multiple repeats of two other instant classics, among others: 1) a Yao Ming public service announcement about recycling. 2) five seconds of a song I can swear came from the videogame NBA 2K11 accompanied by a picture of a Gatorade bottle and some Chinese characters I couldn’t read.
The Olympics on CCTV Part 1: What Makes a Sport Random?
Five weeks of fairly grueling Chinese language study later, I found myself again immersed in the magical world of CCTV sports. Like most other people, I get pumped up when the Summer Olympics roll around. However, I’ve never made an effort to watch the “random” sports, a.k.a. the sports that matter the most in China, like table tennis and badminton.
Mixed doubles badminton was the first sport the four of us watched (China won, obviously, over Russia), and in doing so, the first tangential thought of the night popped into my mind: what exactly makes a sport “random?” Why is badminton any less random than swimming or track and field, sports that Americans care very little for over three of four years but suddenly become our be-all and end-all for one summer month?
My friend Dan argued that swimming and track test more fundamental athletic skills. Besides, he said, badminton is just a dumbed-down version of tennis and table tennis a dumbed-down version of badminton, so we are justified in not caring. Fair point, I guess, but it still reeks a little of the all-too-common America-centric perspective. Count me among the guilty, when I brought up a conversation I had with a housekeeper at our Beijing hotel.
The man had asked if I liked playing badminton, and if I knew the name of the No. 1 player in the world, who is Chinese. I answered yes to the first inquiry, but my “no” response to the second rendered him surprised. I was also surprised that he expected me to know any professionals from such a “random” sport. But as my friend Garrett chimed in, what makes that situation any different from being expected to know Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant even if you only rarely play basketball? (By the way, the No. 1 player is defending Olympic gold medalist Lin Dan).
The U.S. choosing not to prioritize certain sports does not make those sports random/dumb. Different countries care about different competitions, and watching the Olympics in a non-U.S.-centric setting illuminated that, indeed, the Games contain more than just the events in which we excel.
Also, a fun fact: the record speed for a shuttlecock in badminton is over 200 miles-per-hour. I didn’t believe my friend Will when he said that they travel at 120 mph. Then Garrett looked it up and presented that even more astonishing 200+ figure.
After badminton, we switched to women’s field hockey, featuring China and South Korea. Beyond the Boise State-style blue turf and some strange masks donned by the Koreans, nothing really caught my eye there.
The Olympics on CCTV Part 2: Kimberly Rhode, Badass Skeet Shooter
In the third event of the night, CCTV provided me another life-altering experience, this time with women’s skeet shooting. I was awestruck when American Kimberly Rhode strode into position. Donning sunglasses and what looked like a casual hunter’s cap (really an Olympic hat), and carrying significantly more body mass than the petite prior two shooters, Rhode seemed to have come straight from a rural backwater town in the Deep South.
As I openly marveled at the fact that this “athlete” could be on the same Olympic team as LeBron James and Michael Phelps, Rhode merely proceeded to set an Olympic record, finishing off her having hit 99 of 100 targets. I am now so enamored that I might start a Kimberly Rhode fan club. Just look at that photo at the top of this post and tell me it is not one of the most badass things you have ever laid your eyes upon.
It also turns out Rhode is actually a Californian and one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. Olympic history.
The Olympics on CCTV Part 3: Presidential Balling Status
Our collective Kimberly Rhode lovefest set the stage for the night’s main event, U.S. men’s basketball versus France. Despite playing at about 60 percent effort and 50 percent execution level, the U.S. romped by 27 over a French team that features a surprisingly large NBA contingent. Eight of the 12 players that saw action against Team U.S.A. have spent time in the NBA (six active), and yet the U.S. still sleepwalked to a huge victory.
Quite frankly, there’s not much to analyze on the basketball front, so I really did let my mind wander to the following observations:
- The proverbial joke about overweight NBA players is that they need to lay off the cheeseburgers. Beside Eddy Curry and Raymond Felton, French center and San Antonio Spur Boris Diaw has been a frequent target of the cheeseburger insult. Little did we know he might actually have been eating too many cheeseburgers. Thus the hefty waistline and unflattering man-boobs.
- Tony Parker needs to work on his judgment. First he cheats on Eva Longoria, then he shows up to a New York nightclub with Chris Brown’s posse (why on earth would you want to be in Chris Brown’s posse? C’mon Tony, you can do better than that!), gets his retina scratched in the brawl and has to wear protective goggles. I was so proud of myself for being able to explain the Parker story to my language partner the next day.
- During halftime of the game, CCTV switched over to synchronized diving. Forget what I said before about calling a sport random or dumb showing a lack of perspective. Synchronized diving is truly random and dumb. The concept of the sport is to perform much less complicated dives than normal, only with another person doing the same thing. And all the divers end up doing the same little flippy move over and over again. But even this unbearably boring sport had its memorable moment: a U.S. diver whose name read “K. Bryant” (Kelci Bryant) on the screen. Move aside, Kobe.
After our brief excursion into the world of synchronized diving, we returned to basketball. With the U.S. up by 27 heading into the fourth quarter, the final period devolved into set-up-the-rookie (Anthony Davis)-for-exciting-plays-time. It’s fun to watch a bunch of supremely talented players run all over their competition, but even our NBA Dream Teams have become somewhat boring. Which is a shame because 2012 could be the last chance we have to view players of such caliber gather together and stomp on the rest of the world (excluding Spain, which kept matters intriguing in the 2008 gold medal game). We need something to spice the games up.
Well then, what to do? I wasn’t even pondering that question at the time, but when the camera panned to Michelle Obama in the stands, it hit me. Put Barack Obama on the men’s basketball team. You think I’m kidding, but I’m dead serious. Obama is a bona fide baller, and it would be unprecedentedly patriotic to have the leader of a country represent his Olympic team. Most importantly, how freaking awesome would it be to watch LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, etc. setting up the President with no-look passes in garbage time of 30-point wins?
Sure, it’s exciting to watch Davis get the garbage time special treatment, but we’ll be seeing him and The Brow often for the next 15 years. But the President of the United States? I really am so serious about this idea. I want it to happen even more than a Kimberly Rhode fan club. We could definitely afford to hand Andre Iguodala’s roster spot to the Prez.
Wait, dammit. Coach K is a Republican. (Prolonged sigh).
At least I gave it a try. CCTV, I hope you will continue to propel my imaginative thoughts. Long live the Olympics, and long live Chinese government-run television.