Can you tell the difference between the Olympics and American Idol?

Last night, after American Idol finally announced which contestants made the Top 24, I switched over to NBC and watched the women’s downhill, catching Lindsey Vonn’s heroic run and her mascara-streaked post-race comments. And damn it if they didn't sound Idolesque; asked how long she'd dreamed of that golden moment, here's what Vonn said:

“For my whole life. Uhhhh! I’ve worked so hard for this… It’s so awesome. It’s amazing. I mean I’ve given up everything for this. It means everything to me!”

Wait, which show was I watching?

But even though the harmonic convergence of the Olympics and American Idol has led to some confusion—I’m also convinced that snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis and Idol contestant Katelyn Epperly are actually the same person—it's also been revelatory about both events. Idol is often more sport than art, and the Olympics—real events like the downhill notwithstanding—can be more subjective popularity contest than sport.

Here’s what they have in common as Idol looks to narrow 24 semi-finalists to the anointed 12.

Surviving the Prelims
Take a look at short-track speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno. This is a guy who has managed to bridge the worlds of reality television and Olympic sport, thanks to multiple gold medals and a win on Dancing With The Stars. Dude’s got versatile game, no doubt. His sport is crazy and filled with potential disaster at every multiple turn—a bit like Disco Week on Idol. Winning is great, but the first thing you have to do is make sure you’re still standing at the end. Same goes for Idol. For all the judges’ talk about leaving a mark and being creative, the last thing any of the Top 24 want to do now is take too big a risk. Maybe later, but not now.

Reputation Counts
Like world champion figure-skaters walking onto the ice, early Idol frontrunners like Ashley Rodriguez and Andrew Garcia have built-in advantages. Small mistakes won’t cost them as much in the judges’ eyes any more than a bit of a misstep in the short program will lead to major deductions for defending gold-medalist Evgeni Plushenko. For the time being, it’s theirs to lose.

Image is Everything (Or Close to It)
I love watching snowboarder Shaun White. The boy catches mad air and he’s got that mad hair, too. But on Idol, where regular-but-talented guys like Lee Dewyze can easily get lost in the shuffle, one's look is even more important. Ahem: Tyler Grady, the drummer who fell out of a tree and broke both wrists, has managed to ingrain himself on the greater Idol consciousness as a kind of reincarnated ’70s rocker (somewhere Robert Plant is laughing), and may be able to cruise into the final 12 despite limited vocal skills. My advice to Lee? Buy some new jeans.

Vocals as Extreme Sport
Yesterday, while stringing contestant Lilly Scott along, Kara revealed: “I wouldn’t say you have the biggest voice of all the girls. And really, this show is really about that… who can sing the best? Highest notes. The most dynamics. And I don’t believe that’s always the best singing.” With that, Kara gave Lilly the good news that she was through. But just as in the judged sports at the Olympics, there’s pressure on Idol contestants to pull off the singing equivalent of quadruple jumps and 900-degree spins. Too often, artistry ends up giving way to technical prowess. People may like to talk about Mariah Carey’s octave range, but to that I simply say, "great, but your high note just cracked the plasma."

Oh, and also! Here's who made the Top 24:
Didi Benami
Crystal Bowersox
Lacey Brown
Michelle Delamor
Katelyn Epperly
Siobhan Magnus
Paige Miles
Ashley Rodriguez
Lilly Scott
Katie Stevens
Haeley Vaughn
Janell Wheeler
Lee Dewyze
Andrew Garcia
Tyler Grady
Todrick Hall
Casey James
Aaron Kelly
Alex Lambert
Michael Lynche
Joe Muñoz
John Park
Jermaine Sellers
Tim Urban

Follow writer Matthew Jaffe on Twitter: @MattAtTVDotCom

Comments (6)
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Feb 19, 2010
A. Idol is awful. It should be off the air now.
Feb 19, 2010
Similarities, some, maybe. Differences, one big one, most of the Olympics coverage is pretty interesting, of American Idol, none.
Feb 19, 2010
Meh, the differences still far outway these few similarities
Feb 19, 2010
Eh....Olympics are way better than AI trash that has lived long past it's prime. Especially now that 2/3 of the judges have left. Even they know it's over.
Feb 19, 2010
I'm the same as WildfireFox. I've never seen either show.
Feb 18, 2010
Another similarity: I don't watch either!

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