Are the Olympics the Ultimate Reality TV Show?

Stuart Gordon reflects on the gold-medal drama he's enjoyed by watching the U.S. gymnastics team at the current Olympic Games in Rio.

I should begin by admitting that I’m not much of a sports fan. As a longtime follower of the Chicago Cubs, my passion for the team (until fairly recently) bordered on masochism. But I’ve always enjoyed watching the Olympics. I find them a welcome change from the depressing news that bombards us on a daily basis, especially with the upcoming election looming like a bad dream we can’t escape. There’s something so positive about all the countries of the world uniting for a common goal that doesn’t involve killing anyone.

This year I’ve been especially taken by the United States female gymnastics team. In the past, these tiny athletes seemed like traumatized youngsters who feared they would be severely punished for any missteps or failure to “stick their landings.” They usually looked scared to death.

But this time, the most terrified people I’ve ever seen this side of a horror movie were the poor parents of team captain Aly Raisman who cringed and covered their eyes every time their daughter was called upon to perform. Their intense agony brings to mind characters in a Greek tragedy, which is not inappropriate as the Olympics themselves were born in those same fabled isles.

The real drama only begins there, and I find myself unable to turn away from the televised images of these striking and supremely talented young athletes. Are the Olympics the ultimate reality show?

Let’s begin with the saga of Gabby Douglas, the 20-year-old, who is the only remaining member of the 2012 team, apart from Raisman. After contributing mightily to the winning of the team’s first gold medal this year, Douglas found herself the victim of Internet trolls who were outraged that she hadn’t put her hand over her heart for the national anthem at the medal ceremony.

Like President Obama, who was once criticized for the same offense himself, I was brought up to believe that you only put your hand on your heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. Apparently the custom has changed and Gabby and I clearly didn’t get the memo. But here was a young woman who had given her all for her country, training for years, literally risking life and limb, and ultimately winning a gold medal for the United States.

“She was scowling during the anthem!” they chided, as if this indicated she was somehow a traitor to her country. You could see the effect this Internet abuse had on the talented California resident as her inner light seemed to dim each day. It became clear that even her fellow teammates were distancing themselves from “Crabby Gabby” as the media quickly christened her, taking a page from Donald Trump’s inane insults.

The Olympics are rife with stories about young athletes who conquer illness and adversity to become medal winners, but it’s hard to beat the saga of superstar Simone Biles, whose drug-addicted mother was forced to give her and her sisters and brother up for adoption when she was only six. Simone was raised by her grandparents, whom she refers to as Mom and Dad, while her true mother is kept away from her and the limelight, forced to watch her amazing daughter on television like the rest of us.

Biles’ energy and skill is amazing to behold and her 100-watt smile is blinding, contrasting with six-time medal winner Aly Raisman. I’ve christened her “The Ice Princess,” as her features always remain unsmiling whenever she performs.

“All the stress and the nerves … Leave me alone!” Raisman admonished Biles, who kidded her about not wanting to party during a recent interview with NBC’s Bob Costas. But she brightened when asked about meeting her idol, Zac Efron. She reminded us all that although at 22 she is the team’s oldest member and almost a mother-figure to the other girls, she could still instantly become a giggling young fan. Frankly, both gymnasts seemed way more excited about the prospect of eating a pizza.

But I have to admit that the girl who has won the hearts of the viewers (myself included) is the team’s youngest member, 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez. Her enormous brown eyes and unflagging enthusiasm makes her the lightning rod of the group and you could see her doing the routines along with her teammates from her seat in the bleachers. I wished that famed coach Márta Károlyi had used her more often. But maybe Laurie will be allowed to shine more brightly in the 2020 Olympics.

This was Károlyi’s last Olympics and she clearly is loved by her gymnasts and will be sorely missed. I’m surprised there was no big send-off for this legendary coach. We had poached her and her husband Béla from the Romanians after they continuously trounced us, and it was a bit sobering to see that, as a result, there was now only one aging gymnast representing that Eastern European country. I hope that doesn’t happen to us, especially since new regulations will diminish the size of the team from five to three.

So the Olympics is the best entertainment in town, and as it draws to an end I will sorely miss watching it. The Games make you appreciate the infinite abilities of the human body. “What a piece of work is a man.” Nothing seems impossible.

Do I wish I could have become an Olympian? Only if they were to add a new gold medal competition … for eating.

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.