The Olympics Are Over. Were You Impressed?

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“The bad news is that the Olympics are over,” fellow Plugged In critic Adam Holz proclaimed yesterday. “On the up side, Shark Week is here!”

And really, the two television spectacles (the Olympics a sporting staple for NBC, Shark Week an annual obsession for fans of the Discovery Channel) are more alike than we might assume. After all, both feature strong, agile and graceful subjects—characters that sport, shall we say, a fierce killer instinct. Granted, sharks don’t wear Lycra and Olympic gymnasts don’t sport several rows of pointy, disposable teeth. But each squabble over something their rivals covet—be they medals or chum. And both have become social media darlings.

For the sharks, it’s all in a day’s work. The average great white couldn’t care less how many mentions he gets on Facebook. But for those involved with the Olympics, London 2012 marked a bit of a turning point for how the games felt—both for viewers and for the participants themselves.

In 16 days, 150 million Olympic-themed tweets were fired off into the Twittersphere. More than 5 million of those tweets were dedicated to the sport of soccer alone. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s victory in the 200-meter race sparked a remarkable 80,000 tweets a minute—or  25,687 tweets in the 19.32 seconds it took Bolt to actually run the thing. Add the hundreds of millions of Facebook posts, YouTube rants and countless other social networking missives, and we saw the Olympics transform into something they’ve always aspired to be but never quite reached: a celebration that brought the world closer together, in a weird sort of way. After all, it wasn’t just the athletes participating in the closing ceremonies on Sunday—people of different nations dancing and singing and laughing together. It was the rest of us, too, tweeting our thoughts and opinions and even joy to whoever was listening, be they a street or an ocean away.

And that’s all great. Except.

Except that sometimes, when we get to sharing, we sometimes get a little carried away with ourselves. We share inappropriately (as my kindergarten teacher might say). We get snarky, even mean. We fire off thoughts that, if we were talking with a group of “real” people, we might think better of. But because we’re just hammering away at our phones or keyboards, we just let our thoughts ooze out into the world. Sometimes our critiques might be justified. Other times, perhaps not.

Writes Meghan Daum for the Los Angeles Times:

The sneers and jeers piled up faster than Michael Phelps’ medals. … Shots from all over were fired at NBC’s broadcast, which has been condemned for its tape delay, its laser focus on U.S. athletes, its schmaltz and Ryan Seacrest’s journalistic deficits. And then there’s the bizarre sideshow that has emerged around Gabby Douglas’ hair. The first black gymnast to win the individual all-around gold medal, Douglas has been excoriated—apparently by other black women—for crimes having to do with insufficient neatness or gorgeousness of coiffure. In turn, her attackers have been excoriated, and now nary an article is written about Douglas that doesn’t touch on the ‘controversy.’

For better or worse, it’s human nature to take pleasure in scolding, carping and quibbling. The record-breaking numbers watching the London pageantry are no exception.

And then sometimes, the Internet skips the adulation and insults and it just turns plain weird.

Take the strange case of gymnast McKayla Maroney, the gymnastics vaulting specialist who, outside Bolt and swimmer Michael Phelps, may be the London Olympics’ biggest star—not because of her performance (though she did win a silver medal) but because of the Internet meme that sprang up around her sour expression.

maroney1.JPGA bit of background: Before the Olympics began, Maroney was considered to be as sure a sure thing as sure things get for unpredictable sporting events. She was the defending world champion on vault, and her difficulty on the apparatus was leagues away from her closest competitor. She was, in fact, vaulting higher and farther and better than the men. So when she fell during what was to be her moment of triumph, the 16-year-old girl was understandably upset. “I didn’t deserve to win gold if I landed on my butt,” she told reporters afterward.

But her sideways scowl on the medal stand caught the Internet’s eye, and before Bolt could polish off another 200-meter dash, the “McKayla Maroney is not impressed” meme was born. Soon, Maroney was scowling at everything, from the Sistine Chapel to (surely in honor of Shark Week) a great white about to chomp off her head. She even wound up on the moon in 1969. But Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” still wasn’t enough to coax a smile from the gymnast.

Now, there are only so many things you can do when you achieve this level of Internet fame: You can cry and curl up in a ball, try to parlay the notoriety into a reality TV show, or join the fun. And that’s what Maroney decided to do. Just a day or two before the Olympics officially ended, she and two of her gymnastics teammates, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross, tweeted a picture of them all mimicking Maroney’s now-famous face.

maroney2.JPG“The pool is closed … not impressed,” Maroney tweeted.

The level of interconnectivity we have now is both amazing and, at times, unnerving. There are aspects of this brave, new world that worry many of us: the loss of privacy; the opportunity for harassment and bullying; the sense that the Internet may be making us all a little snarkier, a little meaner.

But I’m a firm believer that, whatever comes, a bit of humor can help us deal. The ability to laugh—especially at ourselves—comes in handy.

Now, if only the sharks could find room in their cold, cold hearts for a little chuckle, the world’s oceans would be a bit safer for all of us … and the Discovery Channel would have a whole different sort of Shark Week.