The Summer Olympics show up every four years to provide us a rare gift:
Gloriously unexpected unpredictability.
That quality, when today's sports are over-marketed and overcooked (and over-Tweeted), should never be underestimated.
In fact, I believe that it's the biggest reason the Olympics are so popular -- usually drawing the largest female audiences of any sports telecasts, among other things -- and are so irresistible.
Let me explain.
In high-profile athletic events today, there is plenty of expected unpredictability. Example: When a well-known NFL quarterback enters a big playoff game and we don't know how he'll perform but is either surprisingly bad or surprisingly astounding.
The Olympic is different. The unpredictability is far more stunning because (A) the personalities are largely unfamiliar and often previously unknown and (B) you never know in what event or on what night one of those personalities will suddenly pop up to become famous worldwide. Example: In 1996, a formerly anonymous American teenager named Kerri Strug made a gutsy gymnastics vault on a badly injured ankle in the clutch to earn the USA a gold medal and earn herself pop culture immortality.
A Kerri Strug moment will happen again in London. We just don't know when or at which event. Yet as a veteran of 11 previous Olympic Games, I can also guarantee that within the window of unexpected unpredictability, some very predictable things will still
occur. Keep this checklist. At the closing ceremonies, see how many of these I get correct: Michael Phelps will again be an Olympic uber-personality. Even when he loses -- and he will lose some races this time -- the focus will be on him rather than the guy who beats him. You will gripe about some aspect of NBC's coverage. If you are smart, you will get it out of the way early by angrily throwing bangers and mash at your television, then settling back to try and enjoy the rest of the Games. In the network's defense, the Olympics is probably the toughest sports event to telecast, with so many competitions and so many venues. But come on. In 2012, is NBC really going to delay the telecast of premier events so they can be shown in prime time in the USA? Yes. That's really going to happen. Incredible. Archery will not receive much attention. The host nation, in this case England, will suddenly develop a cool cachet, even if it is one of the least exhilarating countries on earth. During the Games, at least once, someone in your immediate circle of friends will try to bust out a fake British accent and think it's very clever. Also, get ready for Union Jacks everywhere -- on hats, T-shirts, iPad covers, baby diapers and forehead tattoos. Temporary ones, I hope. Nobody who tests positive for drugs will admit they are guilty. Get ready for an innovative "someone dosed the vinegar on my fish and chips" excuse. The USA women's gymnastics team will produce the top new star of the Games. It's inevitable. The USA is expected to win the team gold medal and several individual ones. And the sport is high profile. The Olympic trials, held in San Jose a few weeks ago, more than doubled the television ratings of the Euro 2012 soccer final and Sunday night baseball, held the same day. Best pick for the breakout personality? Gabby Douglas. The beach volleyball venue, constructed more or less in the backyard of 10 Downing Street, will disrupt sensitive diplomatic negotiations by the British Prime Minister David Cameron when an errant serve by Kerri Walsh lands on his briefing table. Social media will play a role at some point in the proceedings. At the last Summer Games in 2008, neither Twitter nor Facebook were so ubiquitous. So look out for all sorts of Wi-Fi/online mayhem and controversy.
Athletes on the USA team have already been briefed on this. (For example, they are not supposed to take pictures of other athletes inside the Olympic Village and post them on Facebook or Twitter.) But we all know how difficult it will be for them to stay within the rules. You won't get to see many of the Games' most emotional and dramatic sights because of NBC's America-centric coverage.
One of my most unforgettable Olympic memories occurred at Athens in 2004, when aging Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas -- who'd won Olympic gold in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney -- decided to compete just one more time at age 33 when his country hosted the Games.
Dimas fought through a bad knee and bad wrist to win a bronze medal. The crowd went nuts when, after his clinching lift, he abandoned his shoes on the mat to signify his retirement. Dimas then received a four-minute standing ovation at the medal ceremony, delaying presentation of the silver and gold. Breathtaking stuff. I don't believe NBC showed a minute of it. At the closing ceremonies, when Paul McCartney performs a duet with LoLo Jones and a tribute to James Bond ends with fireworks exploding out of Bob Costas' hair, everyone will say: "Was that unexpected and unpredictable, or what?"