I’m just going to admit it. I don’t care about the Olympics. But I’m not sure why.
I don’t dislike the games. I hope U.S. athletes do well. I hope the games overcome early predictions of disaster and that the stories of polluted waterways and decrepit athlete housing are not the major ones coming from the world’s most symbolic sporting competition.
But in terms of compelling television, I’m hard pressed to work up the appetite to watch gymnasts or swimmers, diving or dressage. Basketball and soccer are slightly more interesting, but the gold medal winners in both sports seem pretty certain.
I didn’t always feel this way. When I was younger, the Olympics seemed to be a great deal more important, though I’d still have a hard time explaining that significance. Everyone was compelled to watch the games.
The Olympics are still clearly important to many, but many more Americans may share my indifference. Ratings for the games are the lowest they’ve been in years, with early returns showing Rio to be the first time in 20 years that Olympic viewership has declined.
The magic seemed to leave right about the time the International Olympic Committee decided to hold the games on alternating four-year cycles. What was once an event as rare as a presidential election or a leap year was now no more significant than your odd-numbered birthday.
But regularity of schedule really isn’t the only issue the Olympics face. As a spot, it’s hard to find the games compelling despite the colossal push by the larger sports media to create compelling narratives out of the lives stories of every athlete.
The problem is that these narratives spring to life whole cloth about a month before the games take place. These are athletes whose qualifying competitions and hard work through the years leading up to the games take place in nearly complete anonymity.
Before July, I had no idea who U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky was. I had never heard of gymnast Simone Biles. What happened to Gabby Douglas, hero of the last time the summer games were held in London? There are 554 U.S. athletes competing in the games, and the only one I know (outside of the basketball and soccer teams) is U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who is more famous for getting kicked off the Wheaties box when pictures of him smoking pot surfaced on the Internet than he is for swimming.
Despite all of these obstacles, the real explanation may just be that there is so much more out there in terms of athletic competition. In addition to the normal American sports diet of MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL, a vast array of cable sports outlets now deliver global sporting events to us every year. This summer, soccer fans were able to watch the Copa America and Euro, which may not have featured the greatest examples of the beautiful game but were rife with narratives of old rivalries and failed expectations.
Others interested in major sporting events – whether it’s the Tour de France or the World Rugby World Cup – have plenty to satiate their appetites any time they want. Just turn on Fox Sports or the NBC Sporting Network. The international game of your choice is probably on somewhere.
The Olympics is just one more sporting event.
— Pete Mazzaccaro