The Olympics' ties to sports began fraying years ago, as billion-dollar rights deals and commensurate advertising sales transformed the event into the world's greatest marketing showcase, a biennial opportunity to develop new cereal pitchmen. Yet even with all the bluster and bloat -- beginning with the strains of the "Jurassic Park" theme that opened NBC's coverage -- the Games themselves remain hard to screw up, fueled by the noble ideal of seeing the world compete in sporting arenas, not on battlefields.

The Olympics’ ties to sports began fraying years ago, as billion-dollar rights deals and commensurate advertising sales transformed the event into the world’s greatest marketing showcase, a biennial opportunity to develop new cereal pitchmen. Yet even with all the bluster and bloat — beginning with the strains of the “Jurassic Park” theme that opened NBC’s coverage — the Games themselves remain hard to screw up, fueled by the noble ideal of seeing the world compete in sporting arenas, not on battlefields.

So it was that NBC’s first two days of coverage, spread across multiple sister networks, somehow managed to overcome most of the attendant excess that cultivates understandable cynicism — including Friday’s interminable parade of nations that, for all we know, is still going on.

After some second-guessing about their preparedness, the Greeks clearly rallied to the task before them, delivering an Opening Ceremony that met the high standard for these spectacles. Indeed, with all the floating high-wire antics and perfectly formed physiques, the intro played like a combination of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the best Cirque du Soleil ever.

Those initial images were so impressive as to blunt the numbing padding (four hours a night is really a bridge too far), with NBC serving up a whole lot of starch with the Olympic buffet. The network also insists on trotting out the miscast Katie Couric, who with her emphasis on meaningless statistics (“That statue is 50 feet high!”) seemed to be impersonating herself hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

By contrast, Bob Costas remains an enormously smooth and steadying presence, mixing dry wit with a reverence that conveys the event’s majesty without drooling or shilling any more than the job requires.

Wading through two days of coverage, there was nevertheless much to admire, as even a cynic would be hard-pressed not to smile at aspects of the human stories the Olympics deliver. Those range from Afghanistan’s first female competitors to the British Virgin Islands’ lone Olympian, from Chinese basketball star Yao Ming leading his countrymen to the massive and boisterous contingents from countries like Brazil, France and the United States.

Nor did the first day of athletic competition disappoint, though NBC simultaneously exhibited some of its worst impulses, starting with the lionization of swimmer Michael Phelps and the jingoistic hand-wringing over whether the men’s gymnastics team had been treated unfairly by a Japanese judge.

As for the multicasting on sister networks, it’s amazing how vastly superior rowing and an inconsequential Argentina-Tunisia soccer match are to John McEnroe’s CNBC talkshow, while a sampling of MSNBC’s boxing coverage saw fewer hard punches land than on an average installment of “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

By the time the XXVIII Olympiad expires, of course, anyone who tunes in long enough will be an expert on synchronized diving, sticking dismounts and obscure sports that rightfully should surface once every four years. Although NBC dismisses it, the delayed telecasts are still a thorny issue, allowing the network time to lay on the pathos too thick and giving viewers the opportunity to learn the results (such as Phelps’ record-setting victory Saturday) before actually seeing them.

So yes, the Olympics are overproduced, overlong, oversponsored, hell, pretty much over-everything; still, in their best moments, they remain a unique event capable of stirring the imagination and emotions as few TV institutions can.

Taking inventory of the first few days, then, here’s a partial scorecard, which, like everything else, is brought to you by a corporate sponsor:

  • Time elapsed before NBC’s first promo: 15 minutes

  • Half-naked women with glowing stomachs: 1 (but here’s a vote for more)

  • Average interlude between superlatives showered on Michael Phelps: 3.7 seconds

  • Donald Trump and “Joey” promos: Lost count

  • References to winning “Olympic Gold”: Ditto

  • Seeing the world’s youth playing nice together: Now, as ever, priceless

Olympic Summer Games

Special; NBC, Fri., Sat., Aug. 13-14, 8 p.m.

Production

Produced in Athens by NBC Sports. Executive producer, Dick Ebersol; executive vice president, David Neal; head of production, Bucky Gunts; senior vice president, programs, Peter Diamond; managing director-coordinating producer, cable, Molly Solomon; coordinating producer, Jim Bell.

Cast

Primetime host: Bob Costas
Opening Ceremonies co-host: Katie Couric.
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