Olympics: Americans watch as players earn stars and stripes

For a nation fed on NFL and NBA, images from the reality show in London have kept everyone engrossed, writes Mike Tierney.

Basketball’s Kobe Bryant took time to encourage the cyclists at the Velodrome in London.
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At my fitness centre the other day, a middle-aged woman was striding on a whirring treadmill. A companion approached and asked when her workout would conclude.

"Just one second left," she replied, eyes transfixed on a small television screen. It, along with most TVs in the cardio room, was tuned to a water polo game.

Water polo is next to non-existent in my neck of the woods, which suggests that the panting viewers could identity not one player nor position nor strategical tactic nor rule.

Each sport has its own language, and water polo's would sound peculiar to them. (One especially egregious infraction is called "brutality".)

The lunchtime sweat brigade was engrossed in a niche activity because it was part of the Olympics and it involved Team USA.

Conventional sports fans in America have embraced these Games as a bridge between the NBA play-offs and football season while keeping them from jumping off a bridge out of boredom.

For those with a more indifferent attitude toward traditional sports, the Olympics have served as a continuous reality show.

Ratings for the NBC network opened in the stratosphere, drawing an average of 32.2 million prime-time viewers during the first week even amid a torrent of complaints that the high-profile events were not aired live. Other networks might as well have shown a test card, as paltry as their audiences were.

Interest is goosed by winning medals, and the US along with co-power China, has pocketed plenty, many at its extended pool party.

Other sporting debates - Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow? LeBron James: good dude or jerk? - were silenced momentarily for some back-and-forth on whether swimmer Michael Phelps is the supreme Olympian since the ancient Greeks competed in the buff.

The likeable Phelps might warrant a tad less love from Americans if they realised he was wealthy enough to become a holidaying globetrotter, which he says will describe the next phase of his life.

Other than a LeBron here and a Serena Williams there, the largely unsuspecting public sees all Olympians as barely removed from the old-time amateurs, struggling to make ends meet.

So, hearts melted when Kayla Harrison, the first American judo medallist of either gender, said she hoped the gold might facilitate her efforts to become a firefighter. These Olympics have grown to such gargantuan proportions that silly little controversies bubble up almost daily.

How dare Williams celebrate her tennis singles title with a courtside dance associated with a notorious street gang!

Shame on Gabby Douglas because her hair did not conform to the standards of some African-American women!

The gall of the gymnastics girls for being dubbed the "Fab Five", which evidently was taken!!!

Hang your head, Ralph Lauren, for manufacturing Team USA's gear in China!!!!

These Games have converted mini-celebrities into mega ones, making VIPs out of MVPs. Douglas, after her win in the all-around gymnastics, landed on the ultimate modern-day list that measures fame: Google's "Hot Searches" with more than 500,000.

She and the rest of the "Fierce (not Fab) Five" soon will be staring off boxes of cornflakes at the market. The mermaid-ish Missy Franklin, 17, inspired a personalised video tribute from the preeminent Google prince, Justin Bieber, after smiling her way to five medals.

And how about Kobe Bryant, earning kudos for supporting the swimmers and women basketball players at their venues? Apparently it takes an Olympics to turn Kobe into a team player.

Any sports promoters can claim their events offer family entertainment. In the US, these Olympics have embodied it. On the tennis courts alone, the Williams sisters were gilded in women's doubles, the Bryan brothers in men's.

Americans, fond of spending summer holiday on the beach, took special delight when the outdoor volleyball players drew a line in the sand - and no other nation crossed it into the finals.

With one US duo pitted against another for the gold, it was no contest for the best athletes competing in two-piece bathing suits.

Most every age group could relate. The youngest American - Katie Ledecky, 15, won in swimming. There was no gold for the oldest - the equestrian rider Karen O'Connor, 54, who was ninth in eventing, a term as foreign as "greenie" in water polo.

It turned out, there was more than one second remaining in that lunchtime match. Team USA, ahead by one, yielded a last-gasp goal and it went into overtime.

The middle-aged woman reluctantly departed, but others remained. As Team USA surged ahead for good - was that a "doughnut" shot? - smiles lit up the room.

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