An entertainment-industry trade paper recently ran a story with maybe the most depressing lead you could hope to find: "Sure, Michael Phelps has racked up more medals than any other Olympian in history, but turning his gold into Madison Avenue or Hollywood cash will be far trickier." The whole piece is about how Olympic athletes historically have had a tough time finding crossover success in filmed entertainment, and the queasy premise is both disheartening and sadly predictable.

It's disheartening because Phelps won a record eight gold medals in Beijing, giving him a record 14 for his career, but people are acting like this is only a springboard for real fame, like doing Vitamin Water commercials or something. The sense of Olympics as exported product makes the whole thing pretty distressing. These are, after all, men and women competing at the highest level attainable by humans, and the only ones who'll be remembered are the ones whose personas make for a digestible package for the viewing public. Modern TV sports is just that: TV, and that means that supporting a player is really just supporting the idea of an interesting character on a particularly convoluted or long-running drama.

But, like I said, it's also predictable. Even China has taken a cue from the bloated, brand-name nature of the Games and gone to a lot of trouble to produce a product that sacrifices things like reality for the sake of a good show. Some of the fireworks during opening ceremony were fakes, computer-generated explosions for the benefit of home viewers. In the same ceremony, a young Chinese girl sang the national anthem, but officials later revealed the actual vocalist was a young girl who, having slightly crooked teeth, was replaced with a more cosmetically streamlined model. The Beijing sponsors aren't interested in hosting a compelling round of Olympic games; they want to sell viewers on the idea of the Olympics, and that's horribly different. The verified falseness of the ceremony was an oddly prescient glimpse of the games that would follow: The emphasis isn't on the competition, but on the corrupted way that competition is packaged, sold and fed to the world. I hope I never see Michael Phelps' face on TV again. That way I'll know he survived.


The Olympics air around the clock on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and USA.